A retired engineer, 92-year-old Frank Gue says if he learned one thing in the business world during his work years, it’s this:
“You better be desperately afraid of any enterprise that is either big or monopolistic. They are self-serving because they’re they only people there.”
The Burlington Fire Department has 203 paid employees and, while the founder of the Halton Taxpayers Coalition acknowledges there are few other occupations where people risk therir lives on the job, he says the fire protection budget needs close scrutiny.
Fourty-three members of the department, or 21 per cent, had their names published on the 2016 Sunshine List, meaning they earn at least $100,000 a year.
“That seems a little high to me,” Gue said. “The average family in Ontario receives far less than that.”
In 2015, the average salary for a firefighter in Burlington was $115,000. Captains earned an average of $132,000.
Fire chief Tony Bavota said a probationary officer is paid $57,000 annually, a first class officer $88,500 and a platoon chief $115,000.
The department’s operating budget for eight stations in the city for the year 2016 was $27.8 million.
“There won’t be anything more from the fire department budget in 2017 that comes to a surprise to anyone,” Bavota said.
Firefighters work 24-hour shifts, working an average of 42 hours a week and a total of 2,240 hours a year. It’s based on a 28-day cycle, so they have several days off.
Bavota said the shifts run from 7 a.m. the first day to 7 a.m. the next and sleeping facilities are available after 11 p.m. Naturally, firefighters must be ready to respond at all times.
There were only 140 fires in Burlington in 2014 and 150 in 2015. However, much of a firefighter’s time nowadays is spent responding to motor vehicle accidents, medical calls to homes and fire prevention inspections.
There are kitchens in every fire station and the firefighters do their own cooking.
Dan Van der Lelie, president of the Burlington Firefighters Association, said firefighters chip in from their own pockets to pay for food.
“If my wife goes to work, she takes a lunch,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be treated any differently. Taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for my food.”
Bavota said he knows of no incidences of off-duty firefighters dropping into the station for a free meal, so they can keep the family budget in line.
Van der Lelie said some people have been critical that firefighters have the ability to sleep, but it has never been a detriment to anybody in the community.
He said the 24-hour shift, which is on a three-year trial, has been medically proven to be healthier and safer for firefighters.
“It’s had a very positive influence on our personnel with regard to anything from response time to number of sick days taken.
If you ask a municipal politician, you’ll probably be told they have no choice but to pay unionized firefighters almost exactly what they want. Although, as an essential service, they are not allowed to strike, arbitrators often side with public service unions, allegedly because they believe if municipalities don’t have the money, all they have to do is raise taxes.
A few years ago a arbitrator awarded Toronto firefighters a wage increase of 14.26 per cent over five years at a time when many unionized workers in the private sector were accepting little or no rise in pay.
Once the award was made, arbitrators in other jurisdictions were citing the figure as having set a precendent in the workplace.
While firefighters once were hired out of high school, today administrators in the fire department are well educated.
Bavota, for example, has a Masters of Public Administration degree from the University of Western Ontario and also holds a diploma in Public Administration and a Bachelor of Arts – Economics Degree.
Meanwhile, the addition to the front of the headquarters on Fairview St. and renovations to the existing building cost $6.8 million. The addition houses the department’s fire prevention workers.
“It provides a much better venue for customer service,” Bavota said. “Our objective was to put some pride back into the building and I think we’ve done that.”
Written by: Denis Gibbons