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Christie Blatchford

Why firefighters have a burning love for Ontario's Premier Add to ...

It is undoubtedly because I am as thick as a brick, but damned if I can imagine a situation where journalists would line up to speak against better reporting, where doctors and nurses would advocate against improved patient care, or where paramedics would support, say, those opposed to high-tech ambulances.

But then, to borrow a line from the president of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association, when "it is simply about loyalty," the goalposts have a way of shifting.

This week, I learned to my astonishment that the OPFFA, which represents about 10,000 full-time firefighters in the province, is backing the Ontario government's weirdly hands-off approach to legislating automatic sprinklers into older nursing homes.

Sprinklers are mandatory in new construction, but the Ontario government has dug in its heels on making them the law in older seniors' homes, this in the face of irrefutable evidence that sprinklers save lives by buying firefighters time and by suppressing not just fires but also the toxic smoke produced when modern materials burn.

Sprinklers are costly, though not as expensive as often argued, and while you might make a case against them in this regard, it's just about the only honest line of opposition.

The little nugget about the OPFFA came to light late last month at Queen's Park, and again two days ago, when during Question Period Paul Miller of the New Democrats was questioning Community Safety Minister Rick Bartolucci about Bill 21, a bill to regulate retirement homes.

As most everyone says, the bill does some good things, but the elephant in the proposed legislation is that while it gives residents the right to "live in a safe and clean environment," it doesn't mention sprinklers.

Mr. Bartolucci, ever slippery, defended his government's lack of action - lack of willingness to even engage in the discussion, I'd put it - by saying sprinklers aren't a magic bullet, and then referred to a letter from the OPFFA, "suggesting that we shouldn't place false hope on any one particular initiative" and concluded, "We agree with the professional firefighters that they're an important tool, but they are only one tool in the arsenal to fight fires."

It appeared to be a devastating reply to the strong stand taken by the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and in particular by Niagara Falls Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jessop, who has in the absence of government action led the charge to force seniors' homes in his area to install sprinklers.

After all, if firefighters - those universally adored heroic types who rush into burning buildings - don't believe in sprinklers, then who could or should?

In an e-mail sent to Mr. Bartolucci - oh, unsolicited I'm sure - OPFFA president Fred LeBlanc cautioned the government to allocate "scarce budget dollars" wisely, said fire fighters fear "too much emphasis on and faith placed in technology" might result in "a false sense of security," and noted, with a straight face, that "Fire suppression is and always will be labour intensive."

Mr. LeBlanc wrote his note in purported response to a CBC Marketplace show on the topic last month. "I would have to classify this piece of journalism as sensationalistic and narrow in scope," he wrote, "rather than providing the full story that I would have expected from CBC. It also falls in line with recent coverage on this same subject in The Globe and Mail newspaper [these would be earlier stories I wrote]"

He urged Mr. Bartolucci not to hesitate to call if he had any questions. I feel sure the minister won't.

Unnoticed by me, though probably not by anyone involved in the last provincial election, Ontario's firefighters for the first time in history endorsed a candidate - Premier Dalton McGuinty - for re-election.

Well, actually, that is putting it kindly: The association leapt into bed with the Premier.

The Summer 2007 edition of Intrepid, the official publication of the OPFFA, went gaga for Mr. McGuinty. He was on the cover, arms raised in solidarity with Mr. LeBlanc and Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Mr. LeBlanc's own President's Report lavishly praised Mr. McGuinty for his leadership on a number of issues (these were helpfully listed on another page, but included fatter firefighter pensions, protection of their personal insurance rates and "Presumptive Legislation" which protects firefighters suffering from work-related cancers) and summed up by saying, "They were responsive to our issues and engaged us for input on matters like never before."

As Brian George, the OPFFA executive vice-president, wrote in the all-Dalton-all-the-time issue, "This government has gone to bat for fire fighters and it is now time to return that support."

The association asked its members to "answer the call" by donating at least four hours each to the McGuinty campaign, formed a "provincial fire fighters' campaign war-room," appointed a "political action chair" in each branch and had a "strategy desk" in place.

And sure enough, in the Fall 2007 issue, the magazine blared "Successes!" and identified 65 ridings where firefighter support was deemed significant; of those, Liberals were elected in 50.

As Mr. LeBlanc wrote then, "The fire fighters' gold and black [Fire Fighters for McGuinty T-shirts]was a reliable trademark on the campaign trail and a welcome sight as Premier McGuinty travelled across the province." Mr. George was perhaps more prescient: "In the end, we were successful beyond what we thought we could do… We now need to look ahead … we also need to continue with our political action initiatives. It doesn't end here."

Nor did it: Quid pro quo, tit for tat, you scratch my back, a practice as old as the oldest and not very different. As someone smarter than me said about it the other day, "Free country, but it does set up an unhealthy who-owes-who agenda for future years."

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