Current and former volunteer firefighters are coming forward with more stories about harassment, bullying and low morale at Sackville Fire & Rescue in response to a Warktimes story published on April 13th.
Warktimes has also received copies of documents, letters and e-mails that outline a wide range of complaints over how the fire service is run.
Former firefighter Ben Trenholm, who spent 14 years with the department, resigned five years ago.
He says he didn’t want to leave, but constant tension, bullying and harassment made it easier for him to quit.
“I didn’t want to be there anymore, but I didn’t want to walk away,” he says. “I didn’t feel it was right for me to walk away from the fire department because it was something I wanted to do to help the community, but my heart was no longer in it, not one bit.”
Asked for an example of the bullying he experienced, Trenholm recalled being yelled at by an “irate” senior officer at a fire scene.
“He was in my face about my driving skills. Well, I’m a truck driver and I’m not trying to brag here, but I’ve got way more driving skills than a lot of the people down there ever thought of having,” he said.
“So, I got out of the truck and this guy got in my face and like the typical macho man pushing me with his chest and all this,” Trenholm added.
He said he would have taken the matter to the Grievance Committee described in the town bylaw that governs the fire department, but the committee has never been set up and he feels fire department bullies are protected by the chief.
“They can do what they want. They can walk around with no bunker gear on at a fire scene and they’re fine. They do what they want because there’s never any repercussions,” he says.
Trenholm says the Sackville Fire Department used to be a welcoming place for volunteers, but that started to change in July 2009 when town council appointed Craig Bowser to serve as full-time fire chief even though, Trenholm says, the members were unanimously against appointing a full-time chief.
Until then, members had elected their own chief who answered to them, but the full-time chief now reports to the town’s CAO.
“That is when everything went downhill, that is when the membership lost their say,” Trenholm says.
He adds that his own resignation came after the chief led him to believe that firefighters were required to respond to a certain percentage of calls in any given year.
“I was asked to resign under the impression that as a member of the fire department, I was expected to attend 65% of the calls per year; this is what I was told by Craig Bowser,” Trenholm says.
He adds he has since learned there’s nothing in the town bylaw governing the fire service that requires volunteer firefighters to attend a certain percentage of calls.
He acknowledges that he could not respond to overnight calls because his job as a heavy equipment operator in Moncton requires him to be alert and well-rested.
“If there was a call in the middle of the night, I couldn’t be up all night long and still be able to go to work and be able to do my job because the piece of equipment I drive, I’m around people with it all the time and it’s a very dangerous machine if I’m not fully attentive,” he says.
“I did make calls on the weekend; I’d make calls after supper; I’d make training and meetings, but it was the calls in the middle of the night that I didn’t make and that didn’t sit well.”
Trenholm points to a spate of resignations over the last five to six years as evidence of serious trouble within the Sackville fire department.
“If in a six-year period, they see 17 people resign from the fire department and not people that have 25-plus years in, but people that have 8, 10, 11 years in, if you look at those numbers, there’s something not right there,” he says.
“They’re still young and they’re moving on to other fire departments while still living in Sackville — open your eyes, this doesn’t make sense.”
Travis Thurston, who has served as a firefighter for 11 years, says he decided to speak publicly about his many frustrations with the fire service because of a safety issue he feels strongly about.
“It was the last straw,” he says.
Thurston runs the maintenance department at the Sackville hospital where he received training in detailed procedures for donning and doffing medical gowns that serve as personal protective equipment against COVID-19.
He says that in late January, firefighters responded to a medical call in Midgic to assist Ambulance New Brunswick, but paramedics wouldn’t let them in the house because they weren’t wearing medical gowns. He says the gowns were on the truck, but no one had been trained in how to use them.
Thurston says he raised the training issue repeatedly without getting anywhere until he finally called WorkSafe NB, the provincial agency that enforces the Occupational Health and Safety Act. He adds that the fire service finally drafted proper procedures and firefighters received training, but it took him five weeks of badgering to get there.
“It’s tiresome, it’s so tiresome trying to fight to even have a safety plan,” he says. “You know what you need to have in place for safety and you bring it forward to them and say ‘here it is,'” he adds, “and you still get resistance on it and I don’t know why that is.”
Thurston’s spouse, Laura, who is also a volunteer firefighter, is quoted in an earlier Warktimes story about the ongoing discrimination women face in the fire department.
She says volunteering at Sackville Fire & Rescue is a family tradition.
“My uncle Stephen Estabrooks was deputy chief,” and adds that her brother and several cousins have also been firefighters.
“Right now, as much as there’s times where I say to myself, ‘I’ve got to give it up, I’ve got to turn in that pager, I can’t deal with this anymore,’ — it won’t actually happen,” she says.
“To actually shut my pager off or to turn it in, I can’t do that, there’s too much passion there.
“If it rang right now, as frustrated as I am, I’d go.”