Cape Breton Post

‘How much respect do we have for our volunteers?’

Cape Breton councillor ‘shocked’ by changes to hazmat response unit

- IAN NATHANSON • CAPE BRETON POST IAN NATHANSON CAPE BRETON POST ian.nathanson @cbpost.com @CBPost_Ian

SYDNEY — At least two municipal councillor­s feel less than impressed with the way the Cape Breton Regional Fire and Emergency Services abruptly decided to move its hazardous materials (hazmat) response unit out of volunteers’ hands and over to full-time firefighte­rs’ responsibi­lities.

“Any time that we reallocate services stemming from a volunteer base to career firefighte­rs, we should at least do it in a sense of respectabi­lity,” said Steve Parsons, Cape Breton Regional Municipali­ty councillor for District 7 who also sits on the fire and emergency services committee.

Back on April 6, the CBRM announced that municipal fire services opted to restructur­e its hazmat response team, now staffing it with career fire service staff rather than volunteers, which was how it had been for more than two decades.

“When I look at what transpired a few weeks ago, I was disappoint­ed — disappoint­ed at myself as a member of (the) fire services (committee) and disappoint­ed in how this all went down, in my opinion,” Parsons told the committee during its meeting Thursday at city hall.

DEALING WITH VOLUNTEERS

“After receiving lots of phone calls and having lots of conversati­ons, I know we’re not here to look at operationa­l issues and make those operationa­l decisions.

“But we’re dealing with volunteers — and here we are celebratin­g volunteer month — and the way this all went down, the changing of locks after meetings, re-seizing or recouping equipment in a manner that it was done, I just thought, ‘How much respect do we have for our volunteers?’

“Because when you take a group that’s been in existence for 20 years, whether they were doing their job or not doing their job, I’ve never heard of any opportunit­ies that we need to change or modified this service.”

When the announceme­nt was initially issued via a news release, the CBRM explained that the change was “needed to ensure fast and consistent response from hazmat, which responds to about 10 calls per year.

“The Cape Breton Regional Municipali­ty recognizes that our fire service requires fastas-possible response times in our emergency services,” the municipali­ty said in a statement, adding that the regional fire service said its hazmat response would be moving to a 24-hours, seven-days-a-week staffed location — specifical­ly, Sydney Fire Station 2 on Victoria Road.

Regional fire chief Mark Bettens said in the same release that “we regret that the notice of the change to the volunteer group was short.”

‘SLAPPED IN THE FACE’

But Parsons wanted to know what protocols were followed that prompted the abrupt decision.

“I understand that hazmat is a secondary service, not a primary service, I get that,” Parsons told the committee.

“But I don’t understand how we can just take away (the hazmat duties). … I had no idea as a member here what the plan was going forward, who was going to take it, where the equipment was going to, how we were going to provide this service, are these folks trained, and how can we keep council in the loop?

“Right now, we have volunteers in the community that feel like they were slapped in the face, they were disrespect­ed, they weren’t even allowed to go in and get their personal belongings in their lockers.

“To me, we need to do better, because this is no way to treat volunteers. We just told 20 guys and girls that we don’t need them anymore.”

District 1 Coun. Gordon MacDonald, who also sits on the fire and emergency services committee, agreed with Parsons’ critique.

“We went ahead without any input into the committee or the council … we don’t know the full financial hits from that takeover to the career fire services,” MacDonald said. “And nobody can tell me that there’s not going to be any.”

Parsons put forth a motion to have the municipali­ty’s legal department look over the fire and emergency services committee’s responsibi­lities when it comes to making significan­t decisions such as reallocati­ng hazmat resources. The motion received unanimous approval.

‘I ACCEPT RESPONSIBI­LITY’

Bettens, marking his first official appearance as part of the committee, replied that how the changes rolled out were, upon reflection, “less than good.”

“I accept full responsibi­lity for that,” Bettens told the committee.

“I recognize now fully that the committee should have received advance notice of that, and for that I do apologize, but do respect the contributi­on and the value of the committee and the members of council.

“And going forward, (I) ensure you that that will happen.”

Bettens, however, stood by the reasoning that those resources — and any required specialize­d gear — needed to be readily available as quickly as possible.

“I can’t have those resources sitting in Grand Lake Road, when my crew to operate them is on Victoria Road,” Bettens told reporters after the meeting. “So I need to go get them, bring them in to where they’re going to go. So that had to happen relatively quickly because all along there’s only one service.”

LENGTHY ASSEMBLY TIMES A FACTOR

Plus, Bettens noted, the length of time it would take volunteer firefighte­rs to reach a particular station and then move on to a call for hazmat services factored into his decision to reallocate resources.

“Anything that was greater than 15 minutes would be an issue,” Bettens said of what’s often called assembly times.

“I want this vehicle available (immediatel­y) for when the Northside calls. And in order to get there, it takes time as well.”

Hazmat response units, according to Parsons, attended to between eight and 10 calls in 2023. Before that, the most notable occurrence of a need for a hazmat unit came during the Imperial Oil tank farm gas leak in July 2022.

 ?? ?? Cape Breton Regional Fire Chief Mark Bettens: “I recognize now fully that the committee should have received advance notice of that, and for that I do apologize.”
Cape Breton Regional Fire Chief Mark Bettens: “I recognize now fully that the committee should have received advance notice of that, and for that I do apologize.”
 ?? CONTRIBUTE­D ?? Members of the Cape Breton Fire and Emergency Services’ hazardous materials team, then a volunteer unit, participat­ing in training in 2022. Cape Breton Regional Municipali­ty said the hazmat unit is now staffed by career firefighte­rs at Sydney Station 2 in an effort to improve emergency response times.
CONTRIBUTE­D Members of the Cape Breton Fire and Emergency Services’ hazardous materials team, then a volunteer unit, participat­ing in training in 2022. Cape Breton Regional Municipali­ty said the hazmat unit is now staffed by career firefighte­rs at Sydney Station 2 in an effort to improve emergency response times.
 ?? ?? CBRM District 1 Coun. Gordon MacDonald: “We went ahead without any input into the committee or the council ... we don’t know the full financial hits from that takeover to the career fire services.”
IAN NATHANSON
• CAPE BRETON POST
CBRM District 1 Coun. Gordon MacDonald: “We went ahead without any input into the committee or the council ... we don’t know the full financial hits from that takeover to the career fire services.” IAN NATHANSON • CAPE BRETON POST
 ?? IAN NATHANSON • CAPE BRETON POST ?? CBRM District 7 Coun. Steve Parsons: “To me, we need to do better because this is no way to treat volunteers.”
IAN NATHANSON • CAPE BRETON POST CBRM District 7 Coun. Steve Parsons: “To me, we need to do better because this is no way to treat volunteers.”

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