Sackville fire service in crisis a year after first reports of workplace turmoil

Sackville Fire & Rescue is still in a state of crisis one year after Warktimes first published stories about low morale caused by persistent bullying, favouritism and harassment that had led to the resignations of about 17 volunteer firefighters over a five-year span.

It now appears that the department is still plagued by morale problems with not enough volunteers responding to emergency calls leaving fire trucks sometimes understaffed, slowing response times and potentially putting public safety and the safety of firefighters themselves at risk.

CAO Jamie Burke indicated during last night’s council meeting that the town has not yet implemented the recommendations that were supposed to improve operating procedures and give firefighters access to an independent complaints process.

The recommendations, which have never been made public, were contained in a report from the Moncton consulting firm that the town hired to conduct a workplace assessment of the fire service. The town announced it had received the report from Montana Consulting Group just over seven months ago, but has refused to make any part of it public on the grounds that it is a confidential, personnel matter.

CAO Jamie Burke

“I can’t get into the details about the recommendations in the report,” Burke said in response to a question from CHMA reporter Erica Butler.

He added that there need to be fundamental changes to the bylaws governing the fire department in order to improve working conditions there.

“Our legal team is working diligently on a revised bylaw and we will be in a position shortly to bring that to council as well as the fire service,” he said.

However, Burke could not say when the revised bylaw would be ready.

He said he has not met with volunteer firefighters to explain what’s happening, but added that members of the fire department have “summoned” him to their next meeting on April 21st. Firefighters are believed to be angry about the CAO’s failure to consult them on implementing the Montana recommendations.

Burke also acknowledged that the are “rumblings out there” from firefighters about the prospect of a much heavier workload after municipal amalgamation on January 1st.

“The amalgamation process does not create any changes to the fire service,” he said, but added that with three fire departments under one CAO in the new municipality, people could certainly make assumptions about the resulting “challenges and complexities” that may cause.

Volunteer firefighter Travis Thurston questioning Deputy Mayor Andrew Black

During last night’s public meeting, firefighter Travis Thurston raised a concern over the current performance of Sackville Fire & Rescue.

He asked Deputy Mayor Black whether Fire Chief Craig Bowser reports on attendance at fires and response times to calls during liaison meetings.

Black serves on council’s liaison committee that oversees the fire service.

“I can’t say yes or no. I don’t remember if he talks about response time particularly or attendance to calls,” Black said.

“He talks to the number of calls that they have, usually what those calls are about and then often we’ll talk about the  membership, just talk about how the fire department is operating, if there are any concerns, but not that I recall, not specifically to response time to calls or the number of people in attendance,” he added.

Sackville residents with radio frequency scanners can monitor fire calls including recent ones with response times from receipt of the call to arrival on scene ranging from 9 minutes, 13 minutes and 21 minutes.

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7 Responses to Sackville fire service in crisis a year after first reports of workplace turmoil

  1. Sharon Hicks says:

    Hmmm … so, the CAO said the new revised Fire Department bylaw will be ready ‘shortly’.

    Four years ago, in June of 2018, when the town bylaw for Heritage protection was abolished and the Heritage Board was disbanded, we were told by the same person that they were working diligently on a ‘replacement’ for the Heritage board and bylaw, and that it would be ready “shortly”.

    After 4 years, and having asked about the progress every year since then, we are still waiting for that Heritage ‘item’ to materialize.

    If the past record of our current CAO is any indication, the firefighters might have a long wait ahead of them.

  2. Dustin Chandler says:

    We need new people running the town. The new amalgamation will give us an opportunity to elect people who will do a better job for us – and part of that means electing people who will see that we need a new CAO who doesn’t take a year or more to address an issue as serious as fire department services. But Black isn’t any better – if he serves on the liaison committee that oversees the fire department, shouldn’t he be asking more pointed questions such as response time to fire calls and what might be impacting longer response times (such as low attendance)? Instead, if information isn’t voluntarily given to him, he just considers that ok and “everything must be fine.” Not pro-active and quite disappointing, especially for someone who thinks he should be Mayor one day. Let’s at least take advantage of one good thing that amalgamation will offer us – the ability to replace some of these people who just aren’t doing a good job running the town.

  3. Corbet, CPA, FA, FRSA. says:

    This is serious. Nothing put in place to secure the safety and well-being of our citizens? Jamie, is this a good way of doing business?
    Time for new sound leadership.

  4. Tim Reiffenstein says:

    Is the CAO involved in every fire situation? Sounds like the problem is in the department itself, and that it is persistent. Should the CAO deal with this ASAP? Absolutely.

  5. Azi says:

    Sackville has become a town with a Fire department in crisis and an ER that is available part of each day(?). So scary!
    I agree with Dustin Chandler that “Let’s at least take advantage of one good thing that amalgamation will offer us – the ability to replace some of these people who just aren’t doing a good job running the town.”

  6. Les Hicks says:

    Thank you Bruce for keeping residents updated on the ongoing fire department affair (as it later came to be known). Looking at this issue chronologically, in April of 2021 (a year ago), after months, if not years of our town management and town council ignoring requests for assistance from fire department members, CAO Burke hired Montana Consulting to perform a review of problems in the Sackville Fire Department. Seven months ago, on Sept 10, 2021, the town announced on its website that the review had been completed and that fire department members and town councillors had been presented with the results of the review. At the April 11, 2022 town council meeting, CAO Burke stated that none of the recommendations had been instituted yet. Considering this prolonged delay in taking action, it is not surprising that the fire department morale is still low.

    This whole affair has presented several obvious problems with the way issues like this are handled by town management and town council. First, there was a potential conflict of interest on the part of CAO Burke, who selected and hired the consulting firm that reviewed the many fire department members’ complaints, and then maintained control of what information would be released to the fire department and councillors, even though he was one of the management staff who were named in the complaints. For some reason none of our councillors seemed to express concern about this potential conflict of interest. Second, prior to Bruce’s reporting, several councillors had apparently been approached by fire department members for help and had not done anything to address the issue. Third, the councillor (deputy mayor Black) responsible for oversight of the town’s protective services, has apparently, according to his remarks at the April 11th council meeting, not kept on top of this issue and has not ensured that the town and fire department management have instituted the changes that were recommended 7 months ago. Fourth, the secrecy and lack of transparency in the management of our town makes it extremely difficult for residents to maintain awareness of possible issues that they should be concerned about. It appears that all that town management has to do to justify keeping information from the public is to state that it relates to human resources so it therefore has to be kept confidential. Considering that just about any issue with the management of our town can be considered to be related to human resources, this provides a convenient means of keeping information from the taxpayers who pay the salaries of our town staff. I have no doubt that if not for Bruce’s reporting which brought this to the attention of Sackville residents, this whole problem would have continued to be ignored by town management and town council. Perhaps this is the reason that town management and council have made it so difficult for Bruce, and now Erica, to obtain answers to questions that are of importance to the residents of our town. Something has to change.

  7. D_Winter says:

    Did I misread this, or does CAO Jamie Burke think it’s acceptable that seven months after an external assessment has taken place, the people most affected by it (the volunteer firefighters) have yet to have a meeting where the concerns the report was investigating are addressed?

    That seems odd to me – seems like the behavior of an organisation that is used to avoiding awkward public discussions. Maybe I’m misreading the article?

    Response from Bruce Wark: After the town received the Montana report, the consultants met with the firefighters to discuss their recommendations. The firefighters were asked not to discuss the recommendations with any outsiders. At the time, the town promised to implement all 20 recommendations, but firefighters have heard nothing since.

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