The fire department in the Rural Municipality of Reynolds has lost its entire leadership team and the majority of its firefighters in the last few months and the accusations are flying.
A tense interaction between Former Fire Chief Tom Nixon and CAO Kim Furgala in June eventually snowballed into a department meltdown.
According to Nixon, at one point, the department had 16 members and a chief, though some of them were inactive. Now, in early August, Reeve Trudy Turchyn has confirmed three active firefighters and the newly hired Chief are all that are left.
It all started with a plumber.
Nixon, Fire Chief for the last 16 to 18 years, says the fire department has always been quite self-sufficient, however, this spring a plumber was needed and nobody in the department knew who to call so he reached out to the municipality for help.
Nixon says after their first suggested plumber didn’t get back to him, he reached out to the CAO.
“I said 'Kim, can you give me a number for a plumber because this guy is not showing up.' She said 'well find another one' sarcastically. I said 'well I don't know any, otherwise I wouldn't be bothering you', and she said 'well, I am not going to get you a plumber', and I said 'well, what do you want me to do? I can call one in Winnipeg' and she got [angry] and said 'well, I am not going to do your work for you'. She was really disrespectful.”
Nixon says he swore at her and said she could find another fire chief if she wouldn’t help the department get a plumber and she hung up. He says the entire conversation lasted one minute.
Immediately after that, Nixon says he knew he had messed up noting “I thought, 'oh, I shouldn't have said that' so I tried to call back to apologize, she didn't answer the phone.”
Two or three weeks later, Nixon says he was contacted by the CAO and after a tense back and forth about who could be at the meeting, he met with the CAO, a municipal councillor, and his Deputy Fire Chief.
After apologizing for the outburst, Nixon says he was told to sign a letter saying that, by swearing, he had been disrespectful in the workplace, however, he then brought up that he has heard the CAO swear in the same manner more than once in the municipal office.
“I said 'if you want me to sign this here then I want you to sign one too' because I am not signing that. I am not going to incriminate myself. I get that I did something wrong but so did you.”
At this meeting, Nixon says the CAO claimed “I don't care if we lose the fire department because we have mutual aid' and I said to her in that meeting 'Kim, mutual aid doesn't work that way.' That was the end of that conversation.”
Following this heated exchange, Nixon and his deputy left frustrated. Both of them, along with their two captains, then resigned from their positions of authority in the department but said they would stay on as firefighters.
Nixon says the RM wrongfully treated this as a full resignation from the department and sent them record of employment documentation despite their desire to remain on the department.
At this point, the municipal fire committee met with all remaining firefighters as well as the deputy who had stepped down and the two captains. He notes he wasn’t invited, however, his wife who is a firefighter was at the meeting.
Nixon says their goal of this meeting was to find a new chief. He notes the deputy and captains proposed a plan that would see their return and help train new leadership.
Following this meeting, the fire committee, administration and council hired a new Fire Chief. Nixon says even more people left the department saying they refused to work under the new leader.
“Now they have three people in that fire department and [the new Chief] and they are inexperienced, they have two drivers, that is it.”
Nixon says he believes the actions of the CAO, and municipal council have been disrespectful and have not shown support for the fire department.
“They won't listen to us, they won't listen to the firefighters, they just say 'we are going to do what we want to do'. There are a lot of egos involved here, there is a lot of power-tripping.”
Meanwhile, Reeve Trudy Turchyn says this meltdown caught council by surprise.
“From the RM side, it was just a minor issue and we thought it was dealt with so this really took us by surprise that it blew up like it did.”
Turchyn says the decision to accept the chief’s move to step down from his position as a resignation was done as a result of legal advice.
“The solicitor felt that all four should be treated the same based on their letters. I think the trigger was 'resignation', whether they intentionally used that word or it should have been 'stepping down' from their position of authority or some other wording, but because they used the word resigned, the solicitor felt that was the best course to go. They were invited to continue as firefighters, they would just have to reapply.”
Turchyn defends the decision to hire the new Chief noting “He is a resident of Reynolds. He has quite a bit of experience as both a firefighter and a trainer, his portfolio was impressive.”
Moving forward, Turchyn says they will focus on providing additional training to their existing three firefighters, recruiting new firefighters to strengthen the department and reach out to the firefighters who recently stepped away in an effort to repair those relationships.
For the time being, with an understaffed department, the municipality has asked for help from mutual aid. The Richer Fire Department has agreed to help from the west, RM of Whitemouth from the north, and the parks department from the east, however, Nixon says La Broquerie has not agreed to help from the south.
To clarify, the RM of La Broquerie administration says they already have a fire agreement with Reynolds and will honour that agreement but will not provide any additional coverage.
Even with this help Nixon says the RM of Reynolds is severely under-protected as these other departments simply don’t know the Reynolds jurisdiction and are too far away. He gives an example.
“Whitemouth is way far away and they are covering all the way up to Prawda and what if it is down the highway somewhere? Sometimes it takes us 30 minutes to get to the scene and it takes them 35 minutes to 40 minutes to get to where we are and that is way beyond reason.”
In addition, Nixon says miles of the busy Number 1 highway, where they get most of their calls, will have very poor emergency response times.
Nixon says he is worried about the safety of the municipality and the possible insurance ramifications. He adds he is not looking for his job as chief back, but he would like to see the municipality listen to the disenfranchised firefighters and would like the public to know what has been going on.