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Department morale has 'festered,' says firefighter union president

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Mar 01/06) - Yellowknife firefighters hope their battered department can finally right itself after a dozen safety orders were issued by the Workers' Compensation Board.

Craig Halifax, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters local 2890, said it has been a long, morale-draining year at the fire hall ever since two of their own died fighting a shed fire at Home Building Centre, March 17, 2005.

The deaths of Cyril Fyfe, 41, and Kevin Olson, 24, launched a year-long investigation by the WCB. Twelve safety orders were handed to the city, Tuesday. A full report is expected to be completed before the one-year anniversary of the men's deaths.

Halifax said department morale was bad before the accident, and has only gotten worse with recent complaints about protective equipment and poor communication with management.

The 20-person department has experienced a 125 per cent turn over rate since 2000, he said.

"It doesn't help that between fire hall management, city management, and the union that there's been a lot of tension as well. There was tension before the accident but it's festered since."

Firefighters hope the WCB's orders along with greater co-operation from the city will give them more say in workplace safety issues, said Halifax.

He said he applauds the WCB for their efforts and the orders given.

The first order on the list calls the implementation of a health and safety program at the fire department, which Halifax believes will include the establishment of a committee with firefighters and management at the same table.

"It just allows for a better forum to deal with the issues," said Halifax.

The safety issue came to a head two weeks ago when letters between Halifax and fire chief Mick Beauchamp surfaced concerning protective equipment worn by firefighters.

Halifax wrote that it was becoming an "extreme safety issue." Beauchamp stated that their boots, helmets and other "bunker" gear were up to standard or on their way there. The fire chief also threatened to take legal action against the union for forwarding the letters to the WCB, City Hall, and the NWT fire marshall.

The relationship between firefighters and the fire chief's office have soured considerably since the letters were published, said Halifax.

"It just doesn't make for a good work environment, especially since we're such a small department," said Halifax.

One of the WCB orders calls for the "re-certification of personnel in a supervisory or management role."

When asked, Halifax said firefighters believe there needs to be a change at the fire hall's helm. "From top down and bottom up there has to be changes."