The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs says the Renfrew town council decision to retire its chief at age 60 is illegal.
“We feel that actions to mandate a retirement age for fire chiefs contravenes the Fire Protection and Prevention Act (FPPA),” said Steve Hernen, president of the association.
“To my knowledge this is a first,” said Hernen, who is also the fire chief for the Town of Huntsville.
“This could have far reaching impact if other municipalities decided to enforce the same rules.”
On May 7, Renfrew town council decided in a closed door meeting to make 60 the mandatory retirement age for its fire chief, extending the current rules that apply to front-line firefighters.
Its own chief, Guy Longtin, 61, was forced to retire effective immediately following the vote.
Longtin has now threatened a $1.7 million lawsuit in the case.
Reached by phone, Longtin said he’s encouraged by the association’s position.
Is the chief a firefighter?
It comes down to a legal dispute over the FPPA’s mandatory retirement rules, which affect front-line firefighters, and whether the chief should be included.
Peter Emon, the town reeve, argues Renfrew is well within its rights since its chief does perform front-line firefighter duties, in particular, the role of “incident command.”
But the association president said incident command is a very small part of the job.
Longtin estimates he’s been Renfrew’s incident commander, which involves managing an emergency, on two occasions in the last year.
Emon conceded he didn’t actually know how much time the Renfrew fire chief spent as incident commander.
“I haven’t gone back through his records, and that’s not something I should be doing as a municipal politician, frankly,” Emon said.
However, he cites previous rulings by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and the Ontario court allowing mandatory retirement for staff involved in incident command.
Hernen pointed out none of those legal precedents involved a fire chief, only unionized firefighters.
Mandatory retirement illegal: OAFC
More central to the association position are the mandatory retirement rules themselves.
“They’ve extended it to the fire chief and they shouldn’t have,” said Hernen.
Lawyers for the association helped the OAFC develop a position shared with CBC.
- The OAFC mandatory retirement should not include fire chiefs since the act deliberately excludes people in “managerial functions.”
- The OAFC does not support the dismissal of a chief fire officer, who regularly exercises managerial functions, based on the grounds of his or her age.
Stakes high for Ontario chiefs
Hernen noted the stakes in the Renfrew case are high for fire chiefs across the province.
The association represents fire chiefs in 448 municipalities, which is about 96 per cent of all chiefs in Ontario, according to the president.
“It’s not uncommon to find the fire chief over the age of 60 in the province,” he said.
In fact, Arnprior, Ont. hired a fire chief at age 60 last year.
“You’d be limiting the applicants for this job,” Hernen said.
“Keep in mind this is a managerial role, which requires experience, so you’d be taking a large group with knowledge out of the service.”
Town lawyer responds to lawsuit threat
Meanwhile on Wednesday, the lawyer for Renfrew responded formally to the legal letter Longtin sent.
Longtin had threatened a lawsuit if the city did not reconsider its decision.
Longtin said he received the legal response Wednesday, once again offering a package that includes two year’s salary and gratitude for Longtin’s 26 years of service.
He said he will continue to fight for the rights of all Ontario chiefs and seniors facing age discrimination.
Hernen said the association would not get involved in the threatened legal case at this stage, but members will be watching closely.