Resignations hobble Reynolds Fire Department
A rift between municipal leaders and firefighters in Reynolds has sparked a wave of department resignations and reduced fire protection in an expansive rural municipality prone to highway collisions and wildland fires.
Reeve Trudy Turchyn said yesterday the fire department has six rank-and-file members but conceded “not very many” respond to every call.
“Most of them have jobs so during the daytime they’re not available.”
Tom Nixon, the RM’s former fire chief, said the department has three active members left, one of whom may resign. Nixon called the situation “a fiasco” for a municipality that spans more than 3,500 square kilometres and sees about 70 calls for service a year, including about 50 highway collisions.
Don McDougall, the RM’s new fire chief, said yesterday he was still determining the number of firefighters under his command, adding some remaining members “are kind of on the fence.”
“We’re going to give it a week or two and see where we’re at, and then go from there.”
McDougall said there have been no calls for service since July 26, when he was hired.
“We need to have mutual aid responding to every single call that we have, because right now the department is not set up to respond to calls by ourselves,” McDougall said. “We don’t have a chain of command. We’ve got a chief, but we don’t have a deputy or captains.”
Fire halls in Richer, Whitemouth, and West Hawk Lake will assist Reynolds until it can recruit and train more firefighters. McDougall said he’d like to see the department reach 20 members. Turchyn said the department could get by with 17. Nixon said the department had 11 active members and five backup members until last month.
The RM first notified residents of the situation on July 13. In a July 29 follow-up, the RM announced McDougall’s hiring and said it was working to recruit new firefighters. In the meantime, residents should expect “a temporary reduction in service levels” and “an increase in fire department response times” while neighbouring fire departments “provide additional support,” the notice stated.
Nixon said the situation began June 3, when he called Kim Furgala, the RM’s chief administrative officer, to ask for a plumber referral. The fire hall in Prawda had several plumbing problems, including a leak inside a wall. Nixon said Furgala was unhelpful. He reacted by losing his temper and uttering the F-word over the phone.
Nixon said he called back minutes later to apologize but couldn’t reach Furgala. Daryl Mueller, who served under Nixon as deputy fire chief, confirmed Nixon called him immediately to confess he said something he shouldn’t have.
“Before this turned into something big, we did try to stop it,” Mueller said.
“I know I made a mistake—I get that, and I’m willing to apologize,” Nixon said.
On June 17, after discussing the matter with council, Furgala sent Nixon a letter of reprimand explaining his “disrespectful and inappropriate behaviour” had violated the RM’s respectful workplace policy. The letter asked Nixon to sign an acknowledgement that would be placed in his personnel file.
“As the Fire Chief, you are a role model for the Reynolds Fire Department and therefore must be accountable for your actions,” the letter stated.
Nixon refused to sign the reprimand. Twelve fire department members then sent a joint letter to council affirming their support for Nixon.
“Although we don’t agree with Tom’s words, we recognize his contrite attitude and support him as our Chief moving forward,” they wrote.
Furgala, Nixon, Mueller, and Coun. Blaine Webster met June 28. Nixon said the meeting wasn’t productive. In a July 4 letter, Nixon resigned as chief but said he’d stay on as a firefighter. Mueller and two captains did the same.
In a response the same day, council told Nixon he and the others would have to reapply and go through the hiring process.
“How can you let your top four employees just walk away?” said Jason Toews, one of the firefighters who resigned. “It’s not good for the area at all.”
Mueller said he’s heard nothing from council in the weeks since.
“We shouldn’t be discarded as easily as we were.”
Turchyn said council was following legal advice obtained by Furgala.
“We were told to handle them all as resignations,” Turchyn said. “Had their wording been just a little bit different—instead of ‘resignation’ if they would have used ‘stepping down from the position’—it would have been a whole different scenario.”
A request for comment emailed to Furgala returned an out-of-office reply.
Nixon, who was with the department for 19 years, said council is making a mistake. He said the quickest path back to a fully staffed fire department is to accept his apology and rehire him and the others who resigned.
Mueller said it’s “very difficult” to recruit firefighters in Reynolds. A recruitment drive last fall resulted in one new member. Less than 1,400 people live in the RM, according to the 2021 census.
McDougall said he’d “absolutely” welcome back those who resigned if they can make amends with council.
Turchyn said an apology from Nixon would be “a good first step.”
“We didn’t realize there would be so many resignations and it may still turn around,” she added.
In the meantime, Nixon and Mueller said the RM’s notices to residents don’t convey the seriousness of the situation. The West Hawk fire hall won’t bring its extrication equipment outside of its service area, and during the day there’s no one to grab tools from the Reynolds hall in Prawda.
Mueller said only two remaining active members can drive the fire trucks and some aren’t trained in offensive firefighting.
“A million dollars of equipment and no one to run it,” Mueller said. “It’s no longer mutual aid. It’s just aid at this point.”
Mueller said dry spells can result in up to three calls for service a day in Reynolds.
McDougall works on the east end of Winnipeg, a full hour’s drive from parts of Reynolds. He said he can drop everything and respond to every call, changing into his turnout gear at his home in Richer East.