© Carole Morris-Underhill
The Windsor Fire Department has been operating in Windsor since 1881 and serving West Hants for about 60 years.
After months of back and forth, Windsor and West Hants councils have finally sat down to talk fire services. And, they're hoping to do it again in the near future.
The meeting, which lasted just under an hour, was held in Windsor Oct. 15. All but one councillor attended.
The initial purpose of the meeting was to discuss “the future of the fire services in the Windsor Fire Department coverage area” but the main topic centred around how they could work together moving forward.
“The first process is strictly between West Hants and the WFD,” said Windsor's CAO Louis Coutinho, as he launched into the discussion.
Coutinho said the municipality must sort out their situation with the Windsor Fire Department (WFD) before the two councils could start looking at a long term plan for fire services. He suggested the municipality come up with a short term contractual arrangement with the WFD so that planning could begin.
West Hants has been without a signed contract with the Windsor Fire Department for about three years. However, the volunteer firefighting force has continued to provide coverage. Up until April of this year, the department was paid for its services. However, they have not received any financial payments from the municipality since West Hants council opted to change the funding formula at their April 9, 2013 meeting. The municipality now requires the department to submit detailed receipts in order to receive any operational expenses.
Near the beginning of the meeting, Warden Richard Dauphinee reiterated the issue is not with the volunteers, but with the service agreement.
“We've been working our way through this and one thing I would like to clarify up front (is) the volunteers of the Windsor Fire Department have given us outstanding service over the years. That's not disputed for one second,” he said.
But, he noted the status quo was not working for them, and asked Windsor to shed some light on how their arrangement with the WFD works.
“We don't have any contracts with any other fire departments; don't even feel we probably should even have a contract here,” said Dauphinee.
“It appears, from us, that there's no problem with you people working with the Windsor Fire Department but you do have a say. The fire chief and executive have to report back to the CAO and your council. We don't have that. We don't have any input. We just write a cheque,” he said.
Windsor Mayor Paul Beazley told West Hants council that “getting back to contractual discussions is a key part” of moving forward.
Coutinho then explained that Windsor and West Hants have different contracts in place for the provision of fire service.
“You pay a fixed price contract. Your contract includes the purchase of new trucks, the maintenance of trucks, the maintenance of buildings,” said Coutinho, likening it to contracted services such as the RCMP.
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With Windsor, that's not the case.
Coutinho said if the engine on one of the trucks suddenly seized, Windsor would have to come up with the funds to replace or repair it.
“In your case, if the engine seizes, because of your contract price, they have to replace it. They're providing you the service. That truck has to be available.”
Coutinho noted that because of the situation with West Hants and the WFD, the town has been in limbo, not being able to replace any vehicles in their fleet.
“In a contract service, you're not worrying about anything. That's the contract you bought,” said Coutinho. “You didn't want the headaches of owning a fire station, you didn't want the headaches of maintaining a ground fleet and hiring a mechanic. You didn’t want that. You wanted somebody to provide it for you so that's what you're getting.”
Throughout the meeting, council was urged to go back to the negotiating table and try to work out, at the very least, a short term agreement with the WFD executive.
Dauphinee pointed out several of the contractual issues they have but agreed they will try to work it out.
“You're lucky you have one fire service to deal with. We have seven. So, if you get a whole group of them out there that's disgruntled, we can't take a chance on losing all of our fire service, or the majority of it. That's kind of where we're at. We're between a rock and a hard place here,” said Dauphinee.
Beazley said the only way West Hants will be able to come up with a contract that works for them is if openly discuss their concerns with the fire department's executive.
“Right now you're without a contract, which is clear, the fire department is without money, which is clear, and I don't think the executive and West Hants has sat down together to discuss contractual terms and that's really where the wall is,” said Beazley.
By the end of the meeting, West Hants councillors agreed to discuss the possibility of meeting with the Windsor Fire Department's executive to see if they could find some common ground.
New station not in current plans
Midway through the meeting, Coun. Shirley Pineo wanted to shift the focus of the discussion away from the contract issues. She was more interested in discussing long term planning.
“This is between us and the fire department and Windsor really doesn't need to be involved with that part of it. We'll deal with the fire department,” said Pineo.
She then brought up the discussions that were held in the mid-2000s as well as the studies that were conducted.
“The fire department, at that time as I recall, were willing to kind of take a step back and turn it over to the town and the municipality. The town and municipality would have been 50-50 partners in the fire service. We would have owned half of the building,” said Pineo.
“Is Windsor still willing to build a fire station? Do you still have that on your radar?”
“You didn't want the headaches of owning a fire station, you didn't want the headaches of maintaining a ground fleet and hiring a mechanic. You didn’t want that. You wanted somebody to provide it for you so that's what you're getting.” CAO Louis Coutinho
Windsor's mayor said a new fire station may not be required.
“The big question hinges on what is the structure of fire services going to be in the county in the future,” said Beazley. “And, it also hinges on doing proper study because if you look at the Cyril Hare report, it didn't say a new fire station was needed. It said that in the future, with future growth in Falmouth, there may need to be a substation there.”
Pineo interjected and asked if the Windsor fire station was still condemned.
“It's not condemned; it's not structurally a problem,” Beazley replied.
He suggested having a study done to examine the current and projected demographics to get a better idea of what will be needed.
“But we've had four studies done already. The first two I saw were the ones that said there had to be a new fire station, that they could not remain in this building,” said Pineo. “So how can you believe the studies if you just pick and choose who you want to believe?”
Coun. Mike Campbell explained that repairs were made to the station, making it safe for the volunteers.
Pineo asked if Windsor would consider, down the road, constructing a new, jointly-shared fire service located outside the town limits.
“To sit here tonight and speculate that there needs to be a new fire station, I think we would definitely need to see a process whereby you got to do the proper analysis first. Do the analysis, see what it says,” Beazley said.
“Expertise is needed in order to bring this to fruition the way that it needs to be,” Beazley later added.
When West Hants announced they were planning to investigate parting ways with the Windsor Fire Department and gathering prices for what it would cost to build and equip their own fire station, Coutinho was directed by his council to examine what would happen to the Town of Windsor should West Hants call it splits.
“We would survive quite well, alone. This fire station will work very well for us,” Coutinho said, who noted that it would cost about $375,000 to upgrade and revamp the current location.
“As a small town, we have to live within our means. I have advised my council that we will do what it takes for us to survive,” said Coutinho.
“To go 50-50 on a new fire station – that far exceeds what it'd cost me to fix this building and make it a real nice place for our firefighters.”
As the meeting wrapped up, the warden said he felt hopeful that the CAOs could get together, discuss some “positive things” that the councils could do, and report back. Once that process is finished, the councils could have another meeting.