Fire chief firing sparks public protest 0
Residents’ anger and frustration over aspects of municipal governance boiled over last week culminating in a mass walk out by volunteer firefighters, a public protest calling for council’s resignation, and a crisis call to provincial officials.
The turbulence began on Monday, Oct. 2 when members of the Blairmore Fire Station No. 24 turned in their pagers in protest over the termination of Station Fire Chief Jamie Margetak who was “relieved of his active duty” earlier that day.
According to Blair Painter, a member of the department for 22 years, an emergency meeting with the Blairmore station was called that evening where the Director of Protective and Community Services Albert Headrick and Steve Munshaw, the municipality’s new Fire Chief, wouldn’t give the reasons for Margetak’s dismissal citing confidentiality concerns.
The situation escalated throughout the week and in a show of solidarity and support, the large majority of Coleman, Hillcrest and Bellevue members turned their pagers in as well.
About 90 per cent of firefighters in the Pass are now “off-duty” demanding the return of Margetak. There are still a few volunteers on call in case of an emergency but according to Jerry Newman of Hillcrest Station No. 22, only a skeleton staff remains.
“A lot of us have been long-service members and it’s going to be difficult for us …not to be there to support the community,” said Newman. “We’re going to try and have a skeleton crew so that we’re not going to leave the community totally hanging but we do have to support the cause. They cannot unjustly fire a volunteer fire chief that’s been on the department for 34 years for basically, no reason… We’re taking ourselves off active duty… until the problem has been resolved.”
When asked how long the firefighters would be prepared to wait, Newman said, “as long as it takes”.
In a series of press releases, the municipality said a contingency plan was in place and “fire protection… has not been compromised and remains at a high standard”. The plan includes a “crew of paid on call firefighters” and a mutual aid program with the Town of Pincher Creek. An “external agency” operating out of Blairmore has also been hired. A request for information from the municipality about this company was not answered.
The municipality also said they have initiated an “external examination of the operations and activities of the municipal fire services”. The Promoter’s email asking if a consulting firm had been hired and what such a review will cost was also not answered.
Restructuring Crowsnest Pass Fire and Rescue into one department with one Chief and multiple substations was one of the strategic action plans included in the Mayor’s Economic Task Force released to the public in May 2011. It was also reiterated at the public Town Hall meeting held later that year.
The reorganization of the department was announced in October 2011 at meeting with fire and rescue staff, Mayor Bruce Decoux, several council members and senior municipal administration. The reorganization called for significant changes including the elimination of two fire chiefs and the addition of a full-time Manager of Protective Services/Fire Chief. This position was filled last month by Steve Munshaw.
Although changes to the fire department have been recommended in numerous studies, the structure of fire and rescue services within the municipality has a long history, which many believe serves the community well. Others see it as inefficient and costly.
While municipal officials tried to reassure the public of their safety, the situation with the firefighters was the tipping point for many residents who said they are fed up with a council intent on reckless spending and who turn a deaf ear to their concerns.
Several members of the public addressed council at the meeting on Oct. 2 when the firemen’s issue wasn’t discussed during the meeting.
“We had one of the most efficient and economical fire departments in Western Canada. It is now basically defunct,” said Ratepayers’ Association President Bill Kovach. “Everybody is upset and you people have got to sit down and start listening to what’s going on in the community. You’ve upset this community so much with everything you’ve done in the past.”
Others complained that the municipality wasn’t communicating with the community about their contingency plan for fire services through their Facebook page.
“Some of the comments that have been made here tonight are patently incorrect,” responded Mayor Decoux. “Facebook is the work of amateurs, the web, anyone can spew off. A lot of it is patently uncorrect… You are safe, period.”
A meeting was convened on Oct. 4 with MLA Pat Stier and the Crowsnest Pass Rate Payers Association where growing frustration and anger over the municipality’s termination of Margetak and the future direction of the municipality was expressed.
Ratepayers Association President Bill Kovach questioned why changes were made to a fire department that was efficient and economical. He said the municipal budget for this department has almost tripled and the municipality doesn’t respond to calls for answers.
An email from The Promoter to senior administration asking for confirmation of the budgeted amount for the new Protective Services department for 2013 and 2014 was not answered.
A public protest drew over 100 people to the municipal office later that afternoon with many protesters’ calling for the resignation of the mayor, councillors and senior administrators. Residents explained their participation in the rally.
“We need to put a stop to this madness,” said Jacquie From. “The mayor thinks he can do things as he pleases. The expenses he’s spending, there’s no need for it and we have to stop it. I fully support asking for his resignation.”
Rob Farraj said the treatment of the fire chief was unacceptable.
“It’s not how you repay someone after [so many] years,” said Farraj. “Since [council’s] been here, they haven’t done anything good. They’re killing businesses, they’re killing the community.”
The rally later relocated to Bellevue’s MDM Community Complex when it was discovered council and senior administration was located there but council members wouldn’t address the crowd and called for a police escort before they’d leave the building. Eventually, Kovach was able to negotiate a meeting between his executive and council on Oct. 9. Details of this meeting were not available as at press time.
The ratepayers notified municipal Affairs of the situation and a petition to remove municipal council from office is also being discussed.
The ratepayers have called a meeting with all interested members of the public at the Hillcrest Miners’ Club on Thursday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m.
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