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The Globe and Mail

Toronto firefighter union, upset about cuts, plans show of strength at council meeting

The 2013 budget will eliminate 101 front-line jobs and close the station at 426 Runnymede Rd.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The union representing Toronto's firefighters is planning a show of force at next week's council meeting, calling for 101 of its members to fill the public gallery – the final push in a campaign to save front-line jobs, trucks and a west-end station.

The plan is outlined in an internal memo to all members written Jan. 9 and obtained by The Globe and Mail. It characterizes the presence of 101 firefighters wearing T-shirts with the union's "Seconds Count Toronto" slogan as a symbolic display that "would create a strong visual message of what is at stake."

This latest plan is part of an extensive effort by the union to add about $10-million to the department's 2013 budget. To help with that effort, the union has sent its members to knock on doors of Toronto residents; held a news conference in front of a burnt-out home; placed ads on radio and in community papers; and used lobbyists to help take its message to councillors that public safety is at stake.

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Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday sees things differently, noting that the powerful union is often active in election campaigns. He suggested some councillors may be feeling political pressure.

"They are our employees. It's not right that the fire union hires lobbyists to lobby councillors to stop these changes," he said.

City council will give its final approval next week to the 2013 budget, which calls for the elimination of 101 vacant front-line jobs within the fire department and the closing the station at 426 Runnymede Road. Mayor Rob Ford and his executive this week added $3-million to the department's budget, but the union was quick to say the increase was not enough.

While the public debate has focused on fire safety, the union's memo contains a different point. "It's clear that should these proposals go forward, they will have a significant impact on many of our members, from a change in their work location or an impact to future career opportunities," it states.

Councillor Mike Del Grande, the city's budget chair who is urging his fellow councillors to hold the line on spending, says that statement shows the reason for the campaign.

"All these labour things, it boils down to money," he said. "In the body of that statement, it tells you what it is all about."

Ed Kennedy, president of the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters' Association, who signed the memo, said the statement is a response to calls from a number of members, concerned that the extra training they have done, at the encouragement of the department, will not be put to use.

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Members are asking, he said: "Why have we done all this, taken courses and then they pull the rug out from under us."

Mr. Kennedy stands by the union's safety message. He said the budget proposal to take five trucks off the road will affect response times. "Things have gone too far."

A statement issued by Fire Chief Jim Sales late Friday states that the majority of fatal fires in Toronto in 2011 were the result of no smoke alarms or non-functioning smoke alarms on the premises. The proposal for this year's budget, the statement said, "would have a minimal impact on current operations."

Councillor Adam Vaughan, who says he will support a move to give the fire department more funding next week, said he is under no political pressure to do so. "The notion that unions swing elections is overstated," he said.

Mr. Vaughan said he has had firefighters volunteer on his campaign, but they were there because of personal connections, not the union.

The safety concerns, Mr. Vaughan said, are backed up by the draft underwriters report, discussed at a closed session of Thursday's executive meeting.

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Following that meeting, Chief Sales said the report gives the city 12 months to make improvements or risk a downgrade in its rating for commercial properties – a category that includes multi-residential buildings. Such a downgrade would result in increased fire-insurance premiums, he said.

In response, the executive committee added $3-million to the fire budget, enough to hire 15 new fire-prevention officers and 20 firefighters.

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