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Ted Arnott was 10 years old when the family house in Arthur, Ont., caught fire one Saturday night. The village fire chief was at home just down the street, next door to the welding shop that he ran, and he joined the rest of the volunteer fire department in putting out the blaze.

More than three decades later, Mr. Arnott is trying to pay back the favour. For three years, the Progressive Conservative MPP has been fighting to protect "double-hatters" -- the estimated 600 firefighters who work in big-city departments but also do occasional duty with the mostly volunteer brigades in the small communities in which they live. It's one of those quixotic crusades that make you think the best of backbench legislators who work ceaselessly for an issue that draws few headlines.

Mr. Arnott, who represents the constituency of Waterloo Wellington, gets little official backing for his fight against efforts by the 10,000-member Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association to eradicate double-hatting. When the Tories were in office, they refused to sanction legislation he wanted to introduce and so it came forward as a private member's bill. It was defeated on third reading in a free vote.

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He tried again just before the 2003 election and commenced a third effort last April with yet another private member's bill. The prospects for success aren't much better this time, but hope springs eternal in a backbencher's breast.

Mr. Arnott, who has been an MPP since 1990, came to the issue in March, 2002, when a fire chief in his area told him that double-hatters were being forced to resign by the OPFFA. He said he came to believe that communities unable to afford a full-time fire department are being put at risk when professional firefighters are barred from lending their expertise to them.

He was also offended the union was trying to restrict the freedom of people to use their own time to volunteer.

All fire departments have roots in voluntarism and this cross-fertilization between big-city departments and their small-town kin was overlooked for years until 1992, when the OPFFA passed a prohibition against double-hatters, many of whom are actually paid for their time either by the hour or by an annual honorarium. About 200 have quit their double-hat jobs in recent years. About 160 municipalities have subsequently backed Mr. Arnott.

The union, too, argues the case for public safety. It says full-time employees who take on part-time responsibilities can put their co-workers at risk by returning to work without having had a refreshing break. It argues as well that double-hatters increase their exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, which muddies the issue of compensation claims.

The Liberals also opposed Mr. Arnott, but once in office they initially looked ready to do something. Last April, Community Safety Minister Monte Kwinter said it was "unacceptable" that any Ontarian would be put at risk because of the dispute and promised, "If I can't mediate this, then I will bring in legislation."

These days, he seems to be wearying of the whole thing. "This is the 10th time the Official Opposition has asked me a question about double-hatters, and the answers are basically the same," he moaned in the legislature in December.

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The promise of legislation seems to have evaporated and been replaced by a pledge to take the counsel of the Ontario Fire Marshal.

The thing is, Fire Marshal Bernard Moyle says he has told Mr. Kwinter that the exodus of double-hatters from small-town brigades is having an effect. "There's no question certainly that fire safety is being eroded in some communities, and I certainly have expressed my views," he said.

Mr. Moyle, who double-hatted for seven years, says it's not a crisis yet but "my concern is that if it picks up, it could be a serious situation."

In other words, don't count out Ted Arnott just yet.

mcampbell@globeandmail.ca

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