STRATFORD - Burning questions remain for rural Southwestern Ontarians who rely on volunteer firefighters after an entire department in the region abruptly quit in a spat with local politicians.
North Huron volunteers are back on duty, but questions remain about small town fire services
How does a vacant fire hall affect insurance coverage?
What does the Fire Protection and Prevention Act say about volunteer fire crews walking away en masse?
Perhaps most important, what happens if emergency calls come in?
In that case, they’d have to look to their neighbours for support, said Don MacLeod, chief administrator of Zorra Township in Oxford County - writes lfpress.com.
“We do have mutual-aid agreements with several of our neighbours — with Ingersoll, Thames Centre — and we’re now working on one with St. Marys as well as South-West Oxford,” he said.
We would hope our neighbours would pitch in, and I have no doubt they would.”
Most of the North Huron fire department resigned or walked outlate last week amid protests over council’s handling of the chief’s resignation and his replacement.
They agreed to return Monday after an emergency meeting with council and a representative from the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal.
“There was a breakdown — between council and the firefighters — of communication. I think that’s about as far as I want to take that,” North Huron Reeve Neil Vincent said Thursday.
For several days the sparsely populated township in Huron County had no firefighters performing regular duties at its stations in Wingham and Blyth.
Bill Hunter, an experienced chief who oversees two volunteer departments in Perth East and West Perth, said he’d never heard of a crew simultaneously quitting before.
“This perhaps could be the first time something like that’s happened,” he said.
A temporary standoff between firefighters and officials likelywouldn’t affect residents’ insurance policies, an area broker said.
From a property and casualty perspective, an entire fire department — whether it’s full-time, part-time or on-call – going on strike or simply not responding to calls, wouldn’t affect coverage, said Stratford-based insurance broker Peter Maranger.
“Another fire department is going to respond, so they’ll have a triage to this emergency service, but it would not affect the insured,” he said.
But he pointed out it would affect response time, which could lead to more extensive property damage and, potentially, loss of life.
If the situation lasted weeks instead of days, would premiums rise?
“The rates are not set in that short of a time period,” Maranger said.
From a municipal perspective, would insurance coverage and rates be affected by lack of local firefighting ability?
West Perth chief administrator Jeff Brick said he doesn’t believe that would be the case.
“We carry a full range of insurance to insure our business, but I would doubt it would affect our insurance rate for our corporate insurance carrier,” he said.
The Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal didn’t immediately respond to questions about the provincial law.
But from an insurance perspective, Maranger said the province would step in during an extended absence since firefighting is a mandatory emergency service.
Of Ontario’s 449 fire departments, 226 are volunteer-based, according to 2016 figures provided by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Of the province’s 30,000-plus firefighters at the time, nearly two-thirds were volunteers.
Unlike the name suggests, volunteer firefighters are paid but in most cases they sign up to be of service to the community, not for the cash.
“I know from my fire department, the firefighters will tell you to a person that they do it for the vocation, not for the money,” Brick said.
“It’s a very strong sense of community, and I’m sure that’s what the struggle was with the fire service members in North Huron that withdrew their services.”
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