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Don't drag feet on safety orders - firefighters

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (May 17/06) - Yellowknife firefighters may simply give up and leave town if safety orders issued by the Workers' Compensation Board to the city fall by the wayside, a union official warns.

NNSL Photo/graphic

Firefighter Craig Halifax makes sure colleague Kevin Whitehead is strapped in during confined spaces exercises last month. The union is urging the city to get moving on safety orders handed down by the WCB. - Chris Windeyer/NNSL photo

In late February, the NWT/Nunavut Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) issued 12 safety orders to City Hall following a year-long investigation into the deaths of firefighters Lt. Cyril Fyfe and Kevin Olson, who were killed while fighting a shed fire at the Home Building Centre on Old Airport Road, March 17, 2005.

The orders were in response to questions over training and safety precautions taken by the Yellowknife fire department. No official report on the Home Building Centre fire was ever released, although Olson's family believe the men's deaths were the result of a botched training exercise.

"Retention has been an issue for us for a number of years," said Craig Halifax, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters local 2890.

"If it's felt that the safety orders isn't given the priority that it should be, it's definitely going to create hard feelings among the members.

"If it means the guys will leave, they will. It'll make that decision that much easier for them if they feel they're being put in harm's way unreasonably."

Four of the safety order deadlines have already passed by, but it's still unclear how close the city is to completing them.

The orders include demands for a full-time fire department safety officer and re-certification for fire chief Mick Beauchamp and deputy Darcy Hernblad.

Beauchamp took a leave of absence after the city, Hernblad and himself were charged last March under the NWT Safety Act for failing to ensure the dead firefighters' safety.

He hasn't been back to work since.

Hernblad is now in command. The deadline for his re-certification order is June 29.

Halifax said firefighters are still "hopeful" the orders will be implemented, but he cautioned the city not to take too long or make half-measures. The city is trying to re-negotiate dates for some of the deadlines.

"Right now we're at a turning point," said Halifax. "If there's some short-term extensions, that's reasonable, but if things start dragging out... (the tension) that was going on before can definitely come back in the mix at the same level or even greater than before."

Mayor Gord Van Tighem said a committee of city and WCB personnel has been struck to work on implementing the orders.

He said he wasn't sure what sort of progress has been made or how many of the deadlines the city may try to have delayed.

"I haven't got into the details of what they're working on," said Van Tighem.

"I know the orders were issued, the orders are under discussion, and eventually there will be actions following, but they have to be all agreed upon first."

City council has yet to enter a plea on behalf of the city, although Van Tighem had promised previously that they would vote on it in public.

Lawyers representing Beauchamp, Hernblad, and the city appeared in territorial court yesterday, where a judge postponed the case until June 13 at their request. It's the second time the case has been adjourned.

"It's a very lengthy and complicated matter that continues to be (reviewed) by the crown," said lawyer Steven Hinkley.

He said the Crown and defendants were having discussions in an effort to "make the matter more palatable in the long term."

WCB spokesperson Dave Grundy said he wouldn't talk specifically about the Yellowknife fire department, but said charges could be filed if their orders are not addressed.

As for missing deadlines, Grundy said as long as a show of progress is being made and no workers are at risk, the WCB is willing to be flexible.

"Our main function is not taking people to court," said Grundy.

"Our main function is to ensure the workers are safe and there's compliance with the Act."

- with files from Andrew Raven