February 21, 2014 12:45 pm
Updated: February 21, 2014 3:13 pm

Thorsby’s volunteer firefighters say they won’t return until fire chief is reinstated

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EDMONTON – The community of Thorsby is currently without its own fire department. On Tuesday night, nearly 20 volunteer firefighters stepped down from their positions in a show of unity after their fire chief, Norm Osness, was let go.

Osness started working as a firefighter in the village 18 years ago. Twelve of them have been spent as fire chief.

“I don’t get what’s going on, I just don’t understand…and my guys don’t either,” Osness said of the abrupt dismissal.

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Kevin Robins, the outgoing interim Chief Administrative Officer, calls Osness’ firing “an internal matter.” He admits, though, that it had nothing to do with his abilities or his performance as a fire chief.

“It was a management issue, and it was an issue relative to his role as part of his management team,” Robins said.

Community members are angry that Robins pulled the trigger on his last day on the job, before handing the reigns over to new administrator, Jason Gariepy.

READ MORE: Controversial appointment in Thorsby riles residents

“Council is fully supportive of the final decision that was made. The reason they asked me to do it is I take the bullet and the new CAO starts,” Robins said. “I take the damage, not the new CAO.”

Gariepy, who is a former Strathcona County councillor, hopes this can all be resolved soon, and that services can return to normal.

“We need to have leadership at the fire department, I want to work with the volunteers to find out what – if any – grievances they have, and to start rebuilding that relationship.”

In the meantime, Thorsby is having to pay five firefighters from Leduc to staff its fire hall, which Gariepy knows can’t go on for long.

Troy Mutch, president of the Canadian Volunteer Fire Services Association, says the daily rate for this coverage is $625 per hour, which comes to $105, 000 a week and represents roughly 85 per cent of the department’s annual operating budget.

“Something has to happen,” Osness said. “And if it takes the new guy stepping up and saying, ‘ok, let’s get this cleared up and get them back the way they were,’ I mean, my guys would love that. I would like that. But where it stands now, I don’t know what’s going on.”

Osness, along with the former deputy chief and assistance chief met with Gariepy on Thursday.

The Thorsby firefighters have not changed their stance, saying they “will return to active service once Fire Chief Norm Osness is returned to active duty.”

In a statement sent out Thursday, Mutch also called on the province to get involved:

“As an essential service to the community it is our opinion this issue has escalated to the level of Minister of Municipal Affairs. Minister Hughes needs to put pressure on the Provincial Fire Commissioner to intervene and to expedite a resolution that is in the best interest in the community.”

Chamber of Commerce problems

The village has been dealing with another issue: the fact that the president and vice-president of the village Chamber of Commerce also handed in their resignations Tuesday evening.

The business leaders say they’ve had a strained relationship with the community’s administration for years, and they couldn’t work with an administration that disregards its own bylaws and undermines its local business. They said the firing of the village’s fire chief was the last straw.

However, following a chamber meeting in the community Wednesday evening, the president and vice-president’s decision to step down was temporarily put on hold. The pair was convinced to hold off until hearing from Thorsby’s new CAO.

“He managed to take one day and get enough community support and discussion to say ‘hey, listen, give me a chance.’ He gave more attention to all the community organizations right now that are having issues than have been done in years,” said Chamber President Mitch Williams.

“I didn’t know what to expect today,” Gariepy explained. “It could have been a resignation, it could have been the first steps to dissolving the Chamber of Commerce. I think what you saw here is a real genuine effort by the village and by the Chamber of Commerce to have a more productive relationship.

“I think the relationship needs to be healed. I think there’s a lot of work we have to do internally on some of the policies and communication,” Gariepy added.

Gariepy says he’s working on getting the volunteer firefighters back to work, adding bringing back the fire chief is being looked at as an option.

The president and vice-president say they’ll reassess their decision at the next chamber meeting in March.

With files from Tom Vernon, Ross Neitz, Global News

© 2014 Shaw Media

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