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North Cowichan firefighters join CUPE, negotiate for first union contract

Fire department undergoes “communication and leadership effectiveness review”

North Cowichan’s paid on-call firefighters have unionized and are negotiating with the Municipality for their first contract, has learned.

Chief Administrative Officer Ted Swabey has also hired a consultant to conduct a “communication and leadership effectiveness review” following a report citing several firefighter concerns with the department.

In a May 12 email to firefighters, Swabey says the review will include: a review of related documents; interviews with council members, select municipal staff, and select previous fire department members; and separate group sessions with the fire department leadership team, station officers, and firefighters.

Swabey continues: “The topics covered in all interviews and group sessions will be restricted to communications and leadership. Tim Pley will conduct all interviews and group sessions. Tim is a retired local government CAO who served for 26 years in the municipal fire service, with eight years as a fire chief.”

Martin Drakeley, Fire Chief and Senior Manager of Bylaw Services, joined North Cowichan in 2019.


Drakeley could not be reached to comment Tuesday.

Firefighters joined the Canadian Union of Public Employees last March.

Local 358 President Jeff Parker told on Tuesday that contract negotiations are underway, but he couldn’t discuss details.

The number of paid on-call firefighters in North Cowichan varies based on retirements and recruitment, but ranges from 95 to 98, Parker said.

There are four fire halls — Chemainus, Crofton, Maple Bay and South End — and firefighters are paid for attending practices, call-outs and duty weekends.

The fire department review follows a 2022 consultant’s report entitled Vision for the Future by Arjuna George of Silver Arrow Coaching and Consulting.

The report said 69 percent of firefighters provided input. Just under half — 45.7 percent — of firefighters have a good understanding of the direction and goals of the department. Another 17.1 percent are unsure.

“Leadership and relations with the Municipal Council and the fire service are needed,” the report found. “There were several comments that they had never met the municipal staff. There was evidence of poor relations between the firefighters and the municipality.”

The report added: “Numerous comments reflected the perceived lack of appreciation” for paid on-call members.

Some firefighters questioned whether they are employees of North Cowichan. “If so, they asked why P.O.C's do not receive the same benefits or career opportunities as the other municipal employees. This area is an area of concern for many. Some ideas were noted to raise the firefighter rates and increase the standby pay and weekend duty pay.”

Some also expressed concern that the current paid on-call system “is heading towards a career department structure or at least a combination service.”

Firefighters support better communications and transparency throughout the organization, while “some of the officers and station chiefs feel micromanaged.”

The report said the “expectations of on-call members are continually increasing” and that “some are concerned about the members' burnout and a further decline in recruitment.”

Fire protection cost $2.23 million in North Cowichan in 2022, according to municipal financial statements.

(Photo: Martin Drakeley, municipal website).

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— Larry Pynn, June 20, 2023

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