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Firefighters at ‘boiling point’ over airport staffing issues

The fire service responds to a fire in Sandys (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Firefighters claim they have been brought to boiling point by the Government’s handling of overseas fire staff.

Representatives of the Bermuda Fire Service Association told The Royal Gazette yesterday that they supported the decision to bring in Canadian firefighters to bolster numbers at the airport division as a short term measure.

But they now believe overseas firefighters will be a fixture in the service for years to come unless more is done to train locals.

A spokesman for the group added that frustrations had also been caused by a disparity in benefits between what the local firefighters and the overseas firefighters receive.

A spokesman claimed: “The first group were contracted for 90 days, and there was a disparity in the benefits that they received compared to what our members get.

“Now the issue is going to be that they are here long term. We have been told March, but we can pretty well assume that they will be here for two or three years.

“Now we have got to a boiling point with it.”

The Government brought ten Canadian firefighters to the island in July under 90-day contracts in an effort to keep the airport operating at international standards.

Michael Weeks, the Minister of National Security, announced later that the Government sought to bring in another 25 firefighters, who would remain on island until March at a cost of $2.8 million.

While the Government announced it would hire and train 11 new Bermudian firefighters this year, Mr Weeks said overseas firefighters would likely be needed for “at least” another year as new recruits are trained up.

The fire service association spokesman said that five of the original ten firefighters are also expected to remain, bringing the total number of overseas firefighters to 30.

The spokesman claimed that the visiting Canadian firefighters receive a range of benefits — including accommodation and transport — that local firefighters do not, while they also enjoy significantly fewer deductions from their salary.

He said that the overseas firefighters also receive two days of holiday per month — 24 days a year — while equivalent local firefighters receive 13 holiday days per year.

He estimated that the overseas firefighters cost taxpayers roughly three times more than their local equivalents, and those costs would continue to be borne by the taxpayer until enough local firefighters were trained to replace them.

The spokesman said that the training process would take time, particularly for firefighters assigned to the airport as they require training overseas.

“This last round of recruit hiring has taken five months,” he said. “They said they would start training on October 1, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, so we are looking at more than five months.

“In terms of numbers, we estimate the airport will need about 50 firefighters. With these Canadians and the existing Bermudians, we will have 43.

“They need to replace the Canadians over time and get up to 50, while replacing the firefighters coming up to retirement, so you need to have 45 more Bermudians.

“At a rate of 11 firefighters a year, that is going to take you a while.”

The fire service association claimed that while the overseas firefighters had received the necessary certifications, not all had recently worked as firefighters and some required training by local firefighters on how to operate the vehicles here.

The spokesman added that while Bermudian fire recruits were required to undergo drug testing, they did not believe the Canadian firefighters were required to do so.

Sources familiar with the recruitment process said some of the test requirements led to a high number of applicants getting flunked.

The Royal Gazette understands the cannabis test as part of a drug analysis could lead to applicants failing even if their contact with the drug had come about weeks previously.

The group added that while the Government had made efforts to bolster numbers at the airport, the rest of the fire service had not received the same attention and has been losing personnel every year, threatening the service’s ability to respond to threats across the island.

“It’s like you are shot in your arm and your leg, and you are choosing your leg and allowing your arm to bleed out,” the spokesman said.

“They have pretty much told us we are just going to let the arm bleed out because the leg is more important.”

The fire service association also said that it understood two retired firefighters had reached out about returning to the job, but received no response from officials.

The Government was approached on Tuesday for a comment but none was forthcoming by press time last night.

Michael Dunkley, the Shadow Minister of National Security, called for the Government to address the firefighters’ concerns and provide details of the benefits received by the overseas firefighters.

"It is astonishing that a labour government seems to care so little about labour and the ongoing issues that the BFRS has been expressing,“ he said.

“It is even more astonishing that a PLP government has brought in foreign workers to cover for a shortage of airport firefighters with what appears a remuneration package that is better than locals. How can this be right?”

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Published September 29, 2022 at 7:42 pm (Updated September 29, 2022 at 7:42 pm)

Firefighters at ‘boiling point’ over airport staffing issues

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