News Local

Safety issues lead to mass resignation

Lori Penner

A group of firefighters at the Altona Fire Department have resigned, citing safety issues as one of the reasons.

A group of firefighters at the Altona Fire Department have resigned, citing safety issues as one of the reasons.

ALTONA - 

A large group of firefighters at the Altona Fire Department have resigned, citing safety concerns as their reason for leaving.
Six members submitted their letters of resignation on Feb. 3, with one more member putting in a leave of absence, due in part to health issues. Another member resigned on Feb. 6.
The sudden resignations have reduced the membership of the local fire crew to 19.
In a signed statement issued Feb. 6, Lieutenant Vern Zacharias, Lieutenant Curt Toews, Lieutenant Eric Braun, along with firefighers Tim Klassen, Pete Martens, Kris Eisbrenner and Derek Sawatzky said their concerns with department safety had been brought up repeatedly, with no change.
“Bringing up concerns has met with disciplinary action, played off as jokes or completely avoided. It was decided that we could no longer be part of an organization that is not willing to listen to concerns of the members. If these changes to staffing of the Fire Department can bring strength by bringing issues to light, then we have achieved what we have set out to do. We would like nothing more than for the Altona Fire Department to become better and to be able to protect our community as well as it always has. The utmost respect is given to the members for giving their time and efforts to the community.”
After serving the department for nearly 20 years, Lieutenant Curt Toews says it broke his heart to hand in his resignation.
The decision to step down was incredibly difficult, he says, and not one that he or any of the other members took lightly. “I loved being part of the firefighter community.”
Toews says this is not a situation where they simply couldn’t adjust to new leadership.
He and his fellow members, he says, tried to be open-minded and embrace the new procedures that recently-appointed fire chief Greg Zimmerman was introducing, but Toews says the situation had evolved to the point where he and the others felt they were not safe, and had no other choice but to leave.
“We didn’t want to go in the direction Greg wants to go. The direction he was leading was dangerous to firefighters - no training, no accountability, and piles of equipment we’ve never used.”
One of the chief’s new procedures involves scene arrival and staging. In the past, each firefighter began staging immediately upon arrival. That was priority. Within minutes, lines were stretched and charged, all tools connected and a 360 inspection done. After this, the attack and game plan would be confirmed and coordinated by the officer in charge.
Under Zimmerman’s new direction, personnel are told that no staging or action can take place until officers hold a meeting to plan the fire attack with the the commanding officer. Since a fire doubles in size every 30 seconds, members have said this approach wastes precious time.
Another change in procedure is the number of members who are sent into a burning structure. Members say that Zimmerman is pushing to move from two to five personnel into a structure during a fire attack, which goes against NFPA standards and puts members at risk.
The Altona Fire Department has had a long-standing reputation for superb training. Last spring, Level 1 rookies tested first above all others in Manitoba.
Historically, training sessions have been held twice a month, but Toews says there was no actual training for a large chunk of last year. “Greg rarely participated in the ones we did have. You need to have the chief present during the training, so you’re all on the same page at a scene. You need direction and know what to do, and you need to know the other guys have your back. But it was at the point where there was no consistency, and none of us felt safe and supported at a scene anymore.”
Toews cited several examples where members were given orders on scene by the chief that would have put them in grave danger.
“Our lives are completely in his hands in those situations, and I think he has zero concern for our safety.”
Toews says he frequently shared his concerns with Zimmerman.
“I’ve sat in Greg’s office for hours and hours, discussing fire attack technique and apparatuses, and he never took any notes. Anytime someone disagrees with him in a meeting, he jokingly says he’ll fire them right in the meeting. He is entirely unapproachable. The fire department has become a dictatorship where we no longer have any say about our own safety.”
Zimmerman says the resignations came as a complete surprise to him, adding that none of those members had ever approached him with any safety concerns. “These guys have never talked to me. We had officer meetings and round table meetings once a month, and I can’t think of  a single time where they came to us with concerns.”
Zimmerman was hired by Altona in December 2016, following his resignation as fire chief for The Pas Fire Department, where similar issues there had resulted in the termination of three members, and the resignation of five.
Zimmerman says whenever a fire department, or any organization, has new leadership, there are always bound to be a few changes in procedure, and some internal issues to work out during the transition.
The recent staff conflicts at the Altona department, he says, are largely HR issues that have been blown way out of proportion.
“I’ve been here for a year, and the department is going in a different direction. These members unfortunately objected enough that they decided to resign. They obviously didn’t want to go in the same direction as the department and they decided to remove themselves from it,” Zimmerman says.
“It’s unfortunate that they quit. We wish them well. I want to reassure the public that everything is okay and even without these individuals, we’re still very well-staffed and in good shape. There are no safety issues. We are still a cohesive unit and our ability to serve the community has not been compromised in any way.”
But the resigning members say that the department has been compromised.
At Zimmerman’s six month review last spring, Toews says he and other officers of the department presented a list of concerns to Altona CAO Dan Gagné.
The list included issues such as poor organization, judgement calls that put members in danger, unsafe practices on scene, and lack of training, among other things.
“Each point was discussed, but our concerns were totally disregarded. In fact, we were called sociopaths for even putting together a list like that,” Toews says.
The conclusion of that meeting was that the matter would best be addressed internally within the leadership team (fire chief, deputy chief and all officers) and not with the involvement of town administration.
“As with any paramilitary organization, respect and adherence to the chain of command is important in the fire department due to the nature of the work they do,” Gagné says.
“It was important that administration not get involved unless there was a clear problem that needed outside intervention.”
Toews says in spite of mounting issues since that meeting, and numerous attempts to express them through the proper chain of command, their concerns have continued to be ignored.
“We no longer felt safe and we weren’t being heard. This isn’t the way any of us wanted this to end. All of us expected to grow old there. Every one of those resignation letters is so full of heart. Think about it. Why would this many guys who have been part of something they trained for and loved for so long just decide to leave if it wasn’t for a very good reason? Our hearts are broken.”
Despite the roughly 25 per cent reduction in staff, the Town of Altona, through a written statement from Gagné, said they have no concerns about fire response, saying only they regret the resignations.
“...both the Town and the Municipality remain very confident that this will not impact the department’s ability to respond to calls.”
Altona Rhineland Emergency Services also released a statement, saying they met with with the Altona CAO on Feb. 5.
“After positive discussions, we remain ready to serve you. We will continue on our current course of training for safe operations, planning for the changing needs of our residents and adding equipment/apparatus to better serve our communities. We thank the resigning members for their years of service. We wish to assure the residents of the Town of Altona and Municipality of Rhineland that we remain proud and ready to provide safe fire and rescue services to our communities.”
Meanwhile, Toews says he will miss being part of Altona’s emergency service team, but he hopes these resignations will draw attention to serious issues that need to be addressed.
“It’s been a hellish year, and a lot of that trust and brotherhood, and many of those relationships that were formed with other members for decades have become strained. But we don’t hold anything against the members who have decided to stay. In fact, we stayed as long as we did out of sincere concern for them. The lives of my fellow fire fighters are that important to me. And we’re still very concerned for them now. I just hope it doesn’t take someone getting hurt before someone finally listens.”