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Local union President calling on the community to save the Ontario Fire College from closing

With the Ontario Fire College in Gravenhurst set to be decommissioned on March 31st, the President of the union that represents the workers is calling on the community to help save the facility.

Chris McConnell is the President of Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 317 that represents the 20 workers at the facility. “The local has taken the steps to ensure that everybody knows what’s at stake here,” he tells the newsroom. He says that the College provides full-time stable work in a community where those opportunities aren’t plentiful. McConnell says having stable employment is “paramount” to the stability of any community.

“Not all of the jobs are lost per se, some of them are just being transferred,” he notes. “When they’re transferred to a place like Toronto, to be honest, the economic impact to those communities is minimal.”

“Fire Chiefs across the province are looking at their expenses and the cost to room board and travel their trainees to go to the fire college is an expensive proposition,” Gravenhurst Mayor Paul Kelly explained the day after the closure

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“We brought firefighters into this community weekly (to train),” McConnell says. When they did come, he says they spent money at local stores and restaurants. “To remove something like that, from a community as small as Gravenhurst is significant to us locally,” he says. 

The Ontario Fire College was opened in 1949. McConnell says between 3,000 to 5,000 full-time and volunteer firefighters were trained there every year. The college was closed in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and has not re-opened since. 

The province said in January when the closure was first announced that the plan is to open 20 regional centres across the province. 

“Saving a few dollars may at first seem like a good thing, but the cost of trying to save a few dollars could be far greater in terms of the impact to this local economy,” McConnell says.

“The concept of regionalizing training sounds good,” McConnell says. “But these 20 regional centres are not 20 fire college type institutions so they can’t offer the same level of training.” He adds that the province has yet to give a satisfactory answer on how the firefighters will now be trained. 

As part of the Rural Ontario Municipal Association meeting that was held at the end of January, Kelly says he met with the Minister of Government and Consumer Services Lisa Thompson to discuss the facility. “We talked about the importance of the security of that site,” he says. There are three buildings on the property that the town designated as historical. Kelly says he wants to make sure they are protected from whatever happens to the building in the future. 

“The province hasn’t elaborated on a lot of their ideas,” he says. McConnell believes that these things must be public before they shut the doors of the college.

He hopes locals take charge and write their municipal and provincial decision-makers to call on them to do more to protect the college and what it represents in Muskoka.

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