The Two-Hat Volunteer Dilemma

Nov 5, 2014

Why One Veteran Firefighter is Being Targeted By His Union

Providing adequate fire protection services for citizens in smaller municipalities throughout the vast Canadian landscape creates obvious financial challenges. In fact, many are currently looking at options to lessen the costs of providing all forms of emergency services. Most of these smaller towns and villages lack the resources to maintain a fire department comprised entirely of professional firefighters, as is the standard in major urban centres. Instead, they must rely primarily on a volunteer force, including “two-hatters”, which is the descriptor given to full-time, professional firefighters who provide their firefighting skills and expertise to the volunteer fire stations in smaller communities during their off-duty hours. And that’s where conflicting priorities and regulations become evident. The unions regard volunteer fire stations as “rival organizations”, and say two-hatters “undermine the union’s ability to advocate fair working conditions and important health and safety protections for its membership.”

The Constitution of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the union representing professional firefighters in Canada and the United States, clearly prohibits full time firefighters from volunteering in the same capacity in another municipal jurisdiction (which it describes as “labor” in a “rival organization”), stipulating that such activity would represent “cause for discipline or dismissal” from the IAFF. And since professionally-staffed Fire Departments must only hire IAFF-registered firefighters, that is a big deal.

This section of the IAFF document, however, is superseded by government legislation in many U.S. states and 11 of the 13 provinces and territories in Canada. These governments have enacted legislation that protects union members who choose to volunteer from the threat of job loss and other forms of extreme union pressure. Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador are the only two jurisdictions in Canada where a firefighter’s right to volunteer their public safety knowledge and experience is not safeguarded.

For their part, the Unions have a mandate to protect the rights of professional firefighters, and they interpret that to mean safeguarding potential new positions, which they contend are at risk.

However, union action against two-hatters is creating an ethical quandary among the very firefighters the unions were created to ­protect – those who embody the notion of selfless service. In 2002, after what the IAFF proudly described as a “forceful political action campaign” by itself and the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA), Bill 30, the Volunteer Firefighters Employment Protection Act, was “soundly defeated” in the Ontario Legislature. In its own words, the win “confirms the right of IAFF affiliates to discipline members who violate the International’s Constitution.”

In 2012, according to the IAFF web site, the union’s “strong lobbying efforts prompted Liberal MP Hon. Ralph Goodale (Wascana, SK) to introduce a private member’s motion M-388 [which was] adopted by a vote of 150-134 [...]. M-388 showed that a majority of MPs representing a majority of Canadians agree that the ­federal government should act on the IAFF’s legislative priorities.”

Despite the defeat of Bill 30 and the adoption of M-388, the practice of double hatting is again being challenged. Is the union acting in the best interests of itself or its members? A current legal case has reopened the debate, stirred emotions, stoked dissent, captured headlines – and has the potential to change the tide in Ontario.

Tom Hunse, a full-time Toronto firefighter, is being confronted by the IAFF for volunteering his firefighting expertise, during his time off, in his home-town community of Innisfil, located 80 kilometres north of Toronto. Hunse, a 50-year-old father of two, is at the centre of a battle that could change the face of emergency services in bedroom communities across Ontario.

On one side are the municipalities, which are tasked with providing emergency response services while balancing other budgetary demands. On the other is the union, which is trying to protect (and increase) full time firefighter positions, particularly in growing communities such as Innisfil. Caught in the middle, of course, are the citizens that each municipality is legally responsible to protect. Also in the middle, are experienced firefighters who see no harm in helping out during their days off to mentor less experienced volunteers and help protect their very own communities. The “safety” argument has no merit they say, because there are no reprisals for engaging in other unionized trades or physically demanding jobs during time off.

Many rural and suburban Ontario communities are requesting that the Premier and appropriate provincial ministers spearhead amendments to the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997 where it deals with salaried firefighters who also work as volunteer firefighters (the so-called “rival organizations”). The changes would protect a firefighter from being denied union membership or from being disciplined or expelled by the association if they engage in this kind of dual role. They want legislation that denies the IAFF any authority to discipline a double hatter or require the employer terminate a salaried firefighter for such practice.

Established nearly a century ago, the IAFF has grown to become one of the largest and most powerful unions in North America as well as one of the most active lobbying organizations. With headquarters in Washington, D.C. and Ottawa, Ontario, the organization represents more than 300,000 full-time, professional firefighters and paramedics in more than 3,100 affiliates across North America. IAFF members protect more than 85 percent of the population in communities throughout the United States and Canada. Unions such as the IAFF have a unique legal position and, in certain situations, operate as a monopoly. For example, dismissal has the potential to ruin a firefighter’s career because it’s virtually impossible to obtain a position as a professional firefighter without membership in the IAFF.

Some observers have surmised that ‘lost union dues’ and the ‘protection of professional jobs’ are the underlying reasons why the unions are working so hard to keep Ontario from enacting protection legislation for firefighters. The gloves are off.

The Toronto Professional Firefighters’ Association, the local union representing Tom Hunse, has taken official action against him; the leadership doesn’t approve of his position as a volunteer firefighter in Innisfil, and has petitioned the City of Toronto to terminate the 20-year veteran firefighter’s employment.

Understandably, when threatened with job loss by their union, most double hatter firefighters resign their volunteer position (which is often in their home community). Gary McNamara recently told the Globe and Mail that in the 11 years he has been Mayor of Tecumseh, Ontario, he has seen a dozen double hatters pressed into leaving his town’s volunteer force.

Despite odds that may be stacked against him, Hunse is standing his ground, challenging the union’s conduct before the Ontario Labour Relations Board. FrontLine contacted Fire Chief Jim Sales of the Toronto Fire Services but, since the case is before arbitration, he is not allowed to comment. Bottom line is, Hunse could lose his job and his pension with Toronto Fire Services, which would be a disaster for him financially. Volunteer firefighters in small communities such as Innisfil are paid a small stipend when called out. Although Hunse estimates he makes $3,000 to $5,000 annually from the Innisfil department, it’s his full-time professional firefighting position with the City of Toronto that he relies on to support his family and pay his mortgage. Asked why his union wants him fired, Hunse responded, “I haven’t actually received a reasonable answer.”

One of the IAFF’s stated reasons for objecting to double hatting is that they feel it presents a health and safety problem. Being a volunteer firefighter is dangerous and physically demanding, they rightly argue. What if a double hatter is summoned to an incident close to his shift that leaves him fatigued or unable to perform his firefighting duties at his regular job? What if a double hatter sustains a serious injury while volunteering? “There’s a reason we work the shifts we do and a reason we have days off between our shift – that time is designed to recuperate,” says Cory Mainprize, president of the Barrie Professional Fire Fighters Association.

However many others, including Hunse’s lawyer, John Gibson, find this line of reasoning extremely weak. They have essentially accused the union of being inconsistent and arbitrary regarding the issue of double hatters. “The union may tell you if Tom Hunse is fighting a fire in Innisfil he may be too tired to fight fires in Toronto,” Gibson told the London Free Press. “The union doesn’t care if he works all night doing construction work. All kinds of firefighters do a multitude of things on the side.”

As part of its argument, the union has also implied that the use of double hatters by small town fire departments is unnecessary or redundant. “There’s many people in Innisfil, I am sure, interested in being a part-time firefighter,” commented Carmen Santoro, president of the Ontario Professional Firefighters Association. But the majority of fire chiefs in rural communities say they rely on the experience of double hatters. While volunteer firefighters are very well trained, they don’t get the opportunity to use their skills as often as professional full-timers. Double hatters bring valuable experience and are able to give plenty of helpful advice on the different types of calls the crew might have to answer.
According to Innisfil fire chief, Jon Pegg, Hunse is integral to the small department because he commands a local fire station and trains other volunteers. “Replacing Tom, given his expertise and knowledge, would be very hard. Tom’s got almost 30 years of service and, in his role as captain, is a valued leader within our department,” Pegg emphasized. Meanwhile, the town of Innisfil and the Association of Municipalities Ontario AMO are doing everything in their power to support Tom Hunse and the important political and legal issues his circumstances represent.

“The reality is that Innisfil and hundreds of other Ontario municipalities are served by volunteer emergency services, and so we deserve the best and most able people to be volunteer firefighters in their home communities.” – Innisfil Mayor Baguley

Speaking to Frontline Security, Innisfil mayor, Barb Baguley, emphasized that in her view the case represents a human rights issue as well as a public safety concern. “The reality is that Innisfil and hundreds of other Ontario municipalities are served by volunteer emergency services and so we deserve the best and most able people to be volunteer firefighters in their home communities,” she said.  “Innisfil just hired 40 professional firefighters, it’s not like we don’t have full-time firefighters, but if we had to completely staff our three fire halls with full-time firefighters the cost would be too prohibitive.”

The town of Innisfil is supporting Tom Hunse and other two-hatters pursue their right to do what they want to in their free time. They recognize the imperative to ensure the health and safety of citizens who live in the rural constituency. “We have a large geography in terms of our area and we’ve had a lot of motor vehicle accidents that require extrication, it’s not only fires,” Baguley explained.

Speaking to Baguley, one could sense her frustration with the issue. “This is a man who is highly qualified who wants to volunteer in his community. He could take a paying job in another field, he could volunteer at virtually any other job,” she stressed. “He can do whatever he wants as long as it isn’t serving the community doing what he loves and what he is very well trained to do. So it seems to be profoundly unfair from that perspective, but it also doesn’t make economic sense to have this highly qualified person staying in his house while his neighbour’s house is on fire.”

In Baguley’s opinion there is a “simple fix” to the problem if the Ontario government would follow the lead of other provinces and legislate the right to double hat. “This is a stroke of the pen fix,” she argues. “The legislature in Ontario could solve this tomorrow.”

Jaqueline Chartier is a FrontLine staff writer based in Calgary.
© FrontLine Security 2014