The Edmonton Journal had an interesting story this weekend about labour relations, occupational health and safety and emergency services in Lac Ste. Anne county.
The short version is some volunteer fire fighters in Onoway have resigned (and others have threatened job action) in protest of what they view as the county’s unwillingness to address safety concerns, including adequate training and safety deficiencies. An OHS investigation revealed some (unspecified) concerns, which have, according to the county, been remedied.
The county, by contrast, suggests firefighters are unwilling to accept the authority of the county. “It’s one district that’s realizing they can’t do whatever the hell they want to do and didn’t like it,” says Jim Thompson, Lac Ste. Anne County fire services manager. Thompson is new to the county and appears to be tasked with centralizing fire services (although it is a bit unclear if that is a new initiative or not).
This dispute has a number of interesting dimensions:
1. The “workers” are, for the most part, volunteers so they have very real exit options (which most employees do not). Consequently, the “employer” is at some risk of having a complete loss of fire fighters in a region. Other volunteer departments have become non-functional in the past few years because of workload demands. This gives the workers a fair bit of leverage.
2. Push back by workers in emergency services often competes with the paramilitary culture that permeates such services at one level or another and a common belief in the purpose of the organization. Here, we see some of the organizational loyalty fraying as the legitimately different interests of the workers and the employer rise to the fore.
3. It is relatively uncommon to view safety issues in emergency services as “workplace safety issues”. For example, the death of the four Mounties in Mayerthorpe is often discussed as a tragedy. Or as the act of a madman. It is less common (and, in my experience, fairly unpopular), to try to frame it in OHS terms. After all, “a certain amount of risk is expected in the job.” Yet in Onoway, the fire fighters called in OHS inspectors.
4. Small town politics is very immediate and “real”. Politicians in large cities and at the provincial level can often ignore problems because a few pissed off voters won’t have a huge effect on the outcome of an election. And, generally, they don’t live among their constituents on a daily basis. This is not so in small towns and rural areas.
It will be interesting to see what effect a public airing of these concerns has.
County politics are complicated but no counselor wants to be the one who caused a fire service to disband. Will the employer have the stones to back Thompson (the new guy and an “outsider”) if push comes to shove in the community?
It is unlikely that the concerns of the Onoway fire fighters are unique—will more volunteer departments begin to push back? Or will they take the opportunity to lever some improvements from the county for their departments?
-- Bob Barnetson