A controversial town policy is putting Russell and area residents at risk, according to a former town employee.
The policy says that during normal working hours, only one town employee is allowed to attend non-town emergency calls such as an ambulance or fire call.
"It makes no sense and could directly put residents in jeopardy in this town," former town foreman Andrew Smith said.
Smith claims he was fired after he and another employee responded to a fire call.
Shortly before noon on Dec. 4, the Russell Fire Department received an alarm call at Major Pratt School.
Of the first four members to report to the department, two were town employees — Smith and Ariana Pelletier.
Smith, who has three children at the school, and Pelletier, who has a younger brother at the school, both attended the fire, violating the town’s policy.
Following the incident, Pelletier was disciplined and eventually resigned from her job amid controversy.
Smith was terminated.
"They fired me over it and they had no reason to because I would have been going anyway," he said.
Because of his seniority, Smith said he would have been on that call regardless of whether Pelletier attended.
Smith has been a volunteer firefighter since 1996, when he started with the Glenboro-South Cypress Fire Department. He joined the Russell department when he moved to the community two years ago to take the town foreman job.
Pelletier joined the department this year.
It’s not right what happened to either of them, he said.
He believes when they took the call they were on an unpaid lunch break, allowing both employees to go to the school for what turned out to be a false alarm.
"Not only is the town crippling the fire department, but they are putting the health and safety of their own tax-paying residents in jeopardy," he said.
Russell Mayor Chris Radford said breaking the policy was only part of the reason Smith was "released."
"He wasn’t fired for going to a fire call," he said. "We have policies in place and our employees are expected to follow them. If they aren’t followed, then just like any employer, employees will be disciplined for not following policy."
While the policy will be reviewed early in the new year, Radford said it was created to protect other aspects of the community.
"Fires are emergencies that need to be dealt with, but there are other things that need to be dealt with as well," he said. "We need to maintain the integrity of our crew in case there are situations that arise while there is a fire that can still be dealt with."
The Town of Russell shares fire services with the RM of Russell and the Village of Binscarth.
RM of Russell Reeve Robert Muir, who is also chair of the fire board, said understands why the town would create the policy, but as an advocate for the department he can’t support it.
"It doesn’t matter if it’s a fire or a motor vehicle accident, you need to get there as soon as possible," he said, adding that the fire department is busy because of the town being located on Highway 16 and 83.
"We’re the only department in the area with the jaws of life, so we cover quite a large area."
Deputy fire chief Rick Suski said there are 18 firefighters who currently volunteer with the department, but some work outside of the community during the day.
It’s become increasingly challenging to find volunteers.
"Because of this policy the town has lost two good employees who dedicated their time back to the town," Suski said. "They go out to protect someone’s life and they got canned for it."
Smith has already contacted the labour board regarding the matter and intends to take legal action against the town.
And despite the hardship, he said all he really wants is his job back.
"I would love to go back to work," he said. "I love my job."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 20, 2013