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City council approves plan to consider rural firefighters casual city employees

Ottawa firefighters battle a blaze on Ramsayville Road in Ottawa's south end. Sept. 16, 2023. (Scott Stilborn/Ottawa Fire Services) Ottawa firefighters battle a blaze on Ramsayville Road in Ottawa's south end. Sept. 16, 2023. (Scott Stilborn/Ottawa Fire Services)
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Ottawa city council has approved a plan to classify approximately 500 volunteer rural firefighters in the city as "casual employees".

The plan was first introduced at the city's Emergency Preparedness and Protective Services Committee last week, where it passed unanimously. Council similarly carried the recommendation.

"Ottawa Fire Services seeks to recognize rural firefighters as casual employees of the City of Ottawa, while maintaining their volunteer firefighter status under the Fire Protection and Prevention Act. This dual approach aims to integrate rural firefighters into the City's workforce while respecting the regulatory framework and accommodating the Concurrent Employment Policy," a report prepared for Wednesday's council meeting says.

The plan will cost approximately $480,000 a year for things like vacation pay, and CPP and EI contributions. City staff say the pressure would be absorbed within the overall Emergency and Protective Services budget.

Ottawa has 20 rural fire stations that provide service to 80 per cent of the city's landmass. Rural operations account for 40 per cent of Ottawa Fire Services' resources. Firefighters respond not only to fires, but also to many other emergency calls, including water rescues, natural disasters and medical calls.

"Rural firefighters are currently comparable to City of Ottawa employees in many aspects," Fire Chief Paul Hutt says in his report to council. "They are paid hourly rates and receive economic increases. They wear an Ottawa Fire Services uniform that is indistinguishable from career firefighters. Both rural and urban firefighter recruits must pass the same physical testing as part of the qualifications. The City of Ottawa maintains ground insurance coverage for accident and sickness. This will not change as a result of the recommendations."

Making rural firefighters casual employees would entitle them to certain benefits, such as a pension, but they would remain volunteers under provincial law — distinct from professional or "career" firefighters. This would allow volunteer rural firefighters to maintain day jobs, including those with the City of Ottawa. There are currently 105 City of Ottawa employees who also serve as rural firefighters, Hutt says. The city's concurrent employment policy prohibits dual roles, with an exception for rural firefighters.

"While rural firefighters wanted to maintain the volunteer firefighter status pursuant to the Fire Protection and Prevention Act for purposes of the City’s concurrent employment exemption, they also wanted to be treated as City employees to access training through the City of Ottawa’s Learning Centre, and to access the City’s recreational facilities at employee rates for members and families, and to access the City’s internal job postings," Hutt said.

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