Iron Bridge – The upcoming closure of the Ontario Fire College is ringing alarm bells for Huron Shores.
The province announced in mid-January that the Gravenhurst, Ont., facility will shutter on March 31 with fire service training shifting to 20 regional training centres. The college has provided training since 1949 to municipal fire departments without the resources to develop their life-saving skills.
At its February meeting, council passed a resolution in support of Huron Shores Fire Chief Jim Kent’s concerns about the college closing. Huron Shores also responded to Kent by authorizing a letter to Solicitor General Sylvia Jones requesting that Ontario’s decision be reversed.
In its resolution, Huron Shores argues that closing the college will “place significant financial hardship” on the municipality and make it difficult for rural volunteer fire departments to meet provincially-mandated standards.
The Ontario Fire College was providing training to full-time, part-time or volunteer firefighters at a provincially-subsidized rate of $65 per course, which included room and board at the facility. The move to regional centres means the trainee’s fire department must now pay the full costs of training. Regional courses currently range from $350 to $1,200. An emerging question is whether municipalities in the North have the 2021 budget for such costs.
The Huron Shores resolution also stated that “there appears to have been no consideration given as to how this closure will impact rural Northern Ontario fire departments.”
Copies of the Huron Shores letter are being forwarded to Premier Doug Ford, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, Ontario Fire Marshal Jon Pegg and Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha.
The Ontario Fire College closed in March 2020 with the coming of COVID-19.
Regional training facilities remained open. Following the January announcement, fire marshal Pegg publicly stated that “moving to a blend of online and on-site training offered through regional training centres allow us to provide responsive, high quality training to fire services across the province.”
On Sunday, Iron Bridge relied on Huron Shores firefighters to contain a blaze that consumed the local grocery store, The Plaid Pig. A GoFundMe effort has been launched for the owners, Justin and Courtney Verhey, and their four children. The family had lived above the grocery store.
Huron Shores is not the only regional township to raise concerns. Earlier this month, the Township of Machar, south of North Bay, also raised the issue at a council meeting.
“The intent was that the closure of the fire college would lessen cost, but they’re finding it’s actually going to increase cost, and that’s how other municipalities are responding, as well,” said clerk administrator Brenda Paul, adding that some fire halls are expecting a financial increase of up to $8,000.
It used to be $65 for a municipality to send one firefighter to the college, which included on-site accommodations and three meals a day, said Mayor Lynda Carleton. “I don’t know how they think they’ll save money by closing it.”
The province’s regionalization model currently has memorandums of understanding with 20 “regional fire training” locations located in various parts of Ontario.
It could cost municipalities a range of $300 to $1,200 to send firefighters for the training course alone, according to the correspondence received by Machar from Lake of Bays and Augusta.
—with files from Postmedia Network