Last month, a fire gutted a factory near Dufferin Street and Eglinton Avenue, sending dozens of firefighters rushing to the scene and a plume of black smoke rising into the sky. The union that represents Toronto firefighters seized on the occasion to make a point.
Members of the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters' Association went to the site to hand out flyers warning of the peril Toronto residents would face when the city proceeded with a plan to save money by closing one fire station and taking four fire trucks out of service.
Local councillor Josh Colle was taken aback when he came across the firefighters handing out the flyers and volubly pitching their message to passersby. Concerned that the campaign would needlessly frighten local residents, many of them of elderly, he asked the firefighters to tone it down.
The fireside protest is just the latest example of the union's attempts to scare the public. Earlier this year, it put out an ad showing a firefighter emerging from a cloud of smoke holding a teddy bear. "In a fire, seconds count," it said, condemning city council's "reckless plan" to cut fire services. Last year, union president Ed Kennedy visited the site of a fatal fire to call the modest potential cuts "dangerous."
The union even went after Mayor Rob Ford this month, calling it "utterly tasteless" for him to bring a vintage fire truck to his campaign launch as his administration was taking fire trucks off the road. That is quite a claim from a union that sees nothing inappropriate about handing out flyers at a fire scene.
Mr. Kennedy makes no excuses for flyering at the factory fire. He says his members were merely informing the public about the decommissioning of the fire trucks. "This isn't about politics," he says, "it's about public safety."
But the union's flyers list the councillors who voted for and against the cuts, just so people know how to vote in October. "We're going to make this an election issue," Mr. Kennedy says. The fire service is understaffed as it is, he says, and "sooner or later, somebody is going to pay."
All of this might be justified if the union could show there really is a threat to the public from sidelining four of the fire service's 128 trucks or shuttering one old fire station that was recommended for closing for many years and that is within two kilometres of two other stations. But the man who is paid to make such judgments, fire chief Jim Sales, said last week that after looking at years of data on call volumes and response times, "we felt very strongly there would be minimal impact." He said he would never have made the decision if he thought it would have a "devastating or dramatical effect." Just to be sure, he says the service will measure what happens over the coming months and adjust if it is proved wrong.
With costs continuing to rise for policing and firefighting, cities around the country are struggling to find the most efficient, least costly way to provide these vital services. When vested interests like the fire union attack every change in service as a dire threat to public safety, it makes these tough calls harder.
It was a small miracle that city council voted in January to decommission the four trucks after balking under union pressure when it came up in the past. It would be a shame if the city allowed itself to be swayed by the fire union's consistent alarmism now.
Mr. Kennedy says the union is taking its campaign to schools and transit stations and anywhere else it can spread its message. Take those flyers with a lump of salt.