‘Incredibly tough year’ for Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, new chief says

The first six months of any new job can be daunting, but Chief Joe Zatylny assumed leadership of Edmonton Fire Rescue Services 11 weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been an incredibly tough year for everyone,” Zatylny, who started as fire chief on June 1, told CBC News in a year-end interview.

“I think it would have been a challenge for any chief, much less a new one.”

Zatylny had been deputy chief with the Calgary fire department for five years before he moved to Edmonton to take the top job. 

He took over from long-time chief Ken Block, who moved to Australia to become the fire rescue commissioner in Victoria. Block left the department in extraordinarily good shape, Zatylny said.

“With all the changes and adjustments that we’ve had to make in 2020, I don’t think we’ve missed a beat when it comes to service to Edmontonians. That’s a real credit to the people that make up this service.” 

COVID-19 has presented unique challenges for front-line members.

“Our firefighters continue to practise enhanced safe work procedures, involving the wearing of appropriate PPE, including respiratory, eye and skin protection,” Zatylny said.

“After emergency response incidents, they decontaminate to further support their safety.”

There’s no longer interaction between shift changes. Emergency dispatchers are now split between two centres for added protection.

Firefighters are used to braving the weather. Now they must also deal with the pandemic. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Zatylny said the atmosphere inside the fire halls has also been affected.

“They’re masked up at all times in the stations, as well when they’re riding on apparatus,” the chief said. “They’re very cautious on how they interact, to the point where they’re making sure the chairs they sit in are the same chairs.”

Despite the extraordinary precautions that are taken, Zatylny said some staff members have contracted COVID-19. He declined to provide numbers, citing privacy reasons.

“Our mental health team and peer support team made extra efforts this year to support our staff during these times,” he said. “During isolation and [for] any that have contracted COVID-19.”

At the start of the pandemic, Zatylny said, the fire service noticed fewer medical calls. Fewer cars were on the roads and more people were staying at home, he said. 

But he’s also noticed a direct correlation between the pandemic and drug overdoses.

“Since the start of the pandemic, we actually noticed there’s been a significant increase in opioid calls,” Zatylny said. 

All fire trucks are equipped with naloxone, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Statistics show overdose-related calls have more than doubled this year over last. Naloxone has been administered almost twice as often.

(CBC News Graphics)

“It’s clearly alarming and firefighters are upset with the situation,” Zatylny said. “It’s clearly a health pandemic that needs more attention.”

Need for more front-line diversity 

When Zatylny became fire chief, he promised to focus more attention on inclusion and diversity, but so far he has not set any metrics or targets to have the front lines better reflect the community. 

“The more a fire service reflects the community it serves, the better we’re going to be able to serve all the communities in the city,” he said. 

Edmonton currently has 1,128 front-line firefighters. More than 93 per cent are white. Less than one per cent are women.

(CBC News Graphics)

Zatylny said changes need to take place at the recruitment level. 

“I think the focus is getting people to apply and having them understand that this is a job that isn’t just for people that look like me,” he said. “It’s a job that we want to reflect the community and have applicants that represent the community apply as well.”

A class of recruits graduated from training this month. None of the graduates were women. All were white.

Contract negotiations about to begin

Firefighters have been without a contract since the end of 2018 and negotiations will get underway in the new year. That’s against the backdrop of increased expenses due to the pandemic and belt-tightening ordered by city council.

“We did a lot of work this year to make savings and find ways we can contribute to the budget,” Zatylny said. “Next year doesn’t look like it will be any better, but there are no targets or anything at this point to say where we have to go with that.”

There’s nervousness among the union membership about what 2021 will bring. 

“With the direction of the City of Edmonton to cut costs and eliminate services in EFRS, our membership is very upset and morale is low,” union president Greg Holubowich told CBC News in an email. 

“There’s no doubt 2021 will come with many challenges,” Zatylny acknowledged. 

“Our service will have to deal with the budget issues, but we can’t let that distract us from the work of evolving the department to continue meeting the needs of the citizens it serves.”

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