Ontario fire fighters address safety and health risks of two-hatting practice

June 11, 2024

Debate over two-hatting in Ontario firefighting community

Ontario’s firefighting community is grappling with the controversial practice of two-hatting, which involves firefighters serving in both full-time and paid-on-call (volunteer) roles across various departments.

As reported by the IAFF, this practice, while appearing advantageous for communities, presents challenges such as increased fatigue and greater exposure to health hazards.

Legislative changes in 2018 have affected efforts to curb this practice.

To maintain safety, Fred LeBlanc, IAFF 13th District Vice President, and Ontario firefighters are leading initiatives to educate the public and fire service community about these dangers.

LeBlanc noted: “Prior to Bill 57, through education and occasional charges, we reduced the number of two-hatters significantly, but the number is climbing again, raising concerns.”

Impact on safety and health

The IAFF Constitution and By-Laws prohibit members from holding secondary emergency response roles due to potential adverse impacts on the IAFF and its affiliates.

Dave Andre, President of Ottawa Local 162, highlighted the conflict: “It feels like two-hatting works against you.

While you pay dues to be part of the organization, you are working completely against it.”

Greg Horton, Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association President, emphasized the risks associated with fatigue: “After a shift at your career department, you are prohibited from responding to another emergency call. This should hold true regardless of the location.”

A Canadian survey found that 69 percent of firefighters reported poor sleep quality, with 21 percent experiencing clinical insomnia, affecting both volunteer and career firefighters.

Legal and administrative challenges

Working in multiple departments complicates responsibility and accountability, particularly concerning liability and workers’ compensation claims.

LeBlanc stated: “In Ontario, if a paid-on-call firefighter is injured, their full-time employer must accommodate them for up to two years. This is concerning given the nature of the job.”

Nelson Aguiar, treasurer of East Gwillimbury Local 4985, noted the complexities: “It’s a significant gray area involving who absorbs the cost for your care.

“Is it the municipality that hires you part-time without benefits, or the full-time employer?”

This issue becomes especially challenging for firefighters battling occupational diseases like cancer.

Mental health and well-being

Two-hatting can impact firefighters’ mental health and well-being, increasing the risk of burnout, PTSD, and stress.

Brad McGuckin, President of Local 4986, shared: “Two-hatting has had a significant impact on us. It’s about the toll this issue has taken on us personally over the years.”

Aguiar and McGuckin indicated that some members feel two-hatters compromise safety by working against the organization’s priorities.

Aguiar said: “Municipalities are looking for a cheaper option, despite the health impacts. At the end of the day, we are talking about people’s lives.”

Increased cancer exposure

A study by the Occupational Cancer Research Centre at Ontario Health found that Ontario firefighters face a higher cancer risk compared to other workers.

Horton noted: “Those who work as paid-on-call could face double the exposure rates for both cancer and traumatic injuries.

“It is a lot for the human body to handle, including the mental trauma.”

Andre added: “Families may not realize the added traumatic events and exposures, leading to higher risks of illness and having to leave the job.”

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