Friction in the Spaniard's Bay fire brigade

Firefighter Brenda Seymour reinstated following review of her dismissal

Published on March 29, 2011
Brenda Seymour is back on the Spaniard's Bay Volunteer Fire Department, as was recommended by a study ordered by the town council. Seymour, who is also a town councillor, was dismissed by the department last May.
Photo by Andrew Robinson/The Compass

Spaniard's Bay volunteer firefighter Brenda Seymour didn't think she was doing anything wrong last spring when she attempted to secure funding to attend a training course, nor when she discussed her concerns about the department in her role as a town councillor.

According to a study that examined her subsequent suspension and dismissal from the brigade, the discipline was unjust, leading to Seymour's reinstatement to the department by council on Jan. 10.

"I'm very pleased," Seymour told The Compass last week. Seymour was elected to council in October 2009, seven months after she had joined the fire department.

"I didn't have a doubt in my mind when the whole truth came out that I would be reinstated there."

But it was a protracted battle - eight months, in fact, with the town council initially reluctant to become involved with the matter.

No gender bias

The study was prepared by Gerald Hiscock, a former chief of the Spaniard's Bay Volunteer Fire Department. Hiscock also served three terms on council, including two as deputy mayor.

Seymour is the lone female with the department, and the study stated explicitly there was no indication of gender bias in the suspension and dismissal.

Seymour initially requested that council intervene at a May 31, 2010 meeting, but was told the town would not interfere with fire department policy. Council ordered the study three months later, after Seymour had contacted officials with Fire and Emergency Services, an agency of the provincial Department of Government Services, and other agencies of the government.

The study said the province's fire commissioner had concerns about the situation, resulting in the Department of Municipal Affairs getting involved.

Overstepped her bounds

Seymour's suspension came about after she made a request March 4, 2010 to obtain funding to attend fire school in Gander that spring. According to the study, Fire Chief Victor Hiscock said the department would have to wait and see how its financial situation was.

At the March 4 department meeting, Seymour mentioned a workshop on fire and emergency services would soon be held in Spaniard's Bay, and the town clerk would be faxing letters to neighbouring towns about it.

Later in the month, she approached the chief about drafting a letter to send to other departments about the workshop, which he had not done. When the chief visited the town clerk on April 1, he was told that Seymour had already taken care of the letter.

Seymour apologized at an April 8 department meeting for overstepping her bounds. She was informed by the chief that this was not proper behaviour. At the same meeting, Seymour and three other firefighters were accepted as full members after completing their probationary periods.

A motion was also passed at the meeting stating that "nobody approach council" from the department, except for executive members and the chief. Seymour was the only member to vote against the motion.

In the study, Gerald Hiscock characterizes the move as a "gag order" on department personnel. Seymour subsequently secured 50/50 funding for training from the Department of Municipal Affairs, with Seymour covering half of the expenses out of her own pocket. After approaching the chief in late April to get his approval on the application, the study said the chief became angry.

"I guess to him, it seemed like I went over his head," Seymour said.

30-day suspension

At a department executive meeting on April 25, a motion was made to suspend Seymour. She received the notice of her 30-day suspension the next day.

In the study, Gerald Hiscock writes the April 8 motion "could be considered punitive in nature as it appears Ms. Seymour was the impetus for this motion being made and carried." He also questions how the councillor could logically adhere to new policy.

"Were Ms. Seymour to adhere to this motion she would be compromising her position as a councillor with the Town of Spaniard's Bay," Hiscock wrote. "It would be, in essence, defying her Oath of Office as an elected official."

Seymour agrees with that assessment.

"(It) kind of makes it difficult for me, because I'm a councillor. At any given point in time, I may need to discuss something about the fire department. How do you separate the two?"

Her dismissal on May 27 was preceded by a special council meeting. Prior to the meeting, Seymour requested a privileged meeting where she outlined her concerns regarding the level of fire department training in a written document. Once the privileged meeting concluded, Seymour was not permitted by council to take part in the discussion regarding the department and the appointment of a new council liaison with the brigade. Council cited a conflict of interest.

Seymour barred from meetings

At a May 13 meeting of the fire department, Mayor John Drover, acting as a liaison, read out the document Seymour presented to council at the privileged meeting. Earlier in the meeting, he had said that "Council will give their support on any reprimanding decisions the fire department makes on this issue."

Two days later, the chief and executive members held a meeting with council that Seymour was asked not to attend because of a conflict of interest. Two days later, Seymour was dismissed from the brigade at a meeting she was told not to attend.

Gerald Hiscock finds that detail problematic.

"She had no opportunity to make her case to the membership," he wrote. "An argument could therefore be made that Ms. Seymour has indeed had her individual rights infringed upon."

He also believes council made a mistake when it deemed she was in a conflict of interest in discussing matters relating to the fire department. As well, the letters of suspension and dismissal from the fire department were "vaguely worded," according to Gerald Hiscock, with generalizations offered instead of specifics.

Seymour said there would only have been a conflict of interest at play if financial gain was involved, and she absolutely believes she should have been allowed to attend both meetings, particularly the one on May 27.

"It was almost like being put on trial and not being able to explain yourself," she said. "If I'd had a chance to explain why I brought those issues forward and what my concerns were, maybe my dismissal would never have happened."

Not blameless

While the study is generally supportive of Seymour, it does highlight how her actions may have rubbed fellow firefighters the wrong way.

"However, in her quest for knowledge Ms. Seymour may have lost the support of many of her fellow firefighters as well as breaching the 'Chain of Command.' In fact, her aggressive approach created a hostile atmosphere with her colleagues on the department. This atmosphere later contributed to emotionally charged discussions and decision-making by the department on this matter."

The study also deems fire department members could have considered her overeagerness to obtain training in another light.

"She was overly eager to get all the educational courses she could under her belt and her ways and means of doing so was considered to be insubordinate. However, others would argue that this type of individual you would want on your department; a person with a keen interest in being a member, a great willingness to learn, and boundless energy."

Gerald Hiscock described Fire Chief Victor Hiscock as a popular chief with members who is also respected in the community. However, the study makes an assertion that may cast doubt on Hiscock's suitability as chief.

"The fire community has evolved to a point today where a fire chief has to possess the appropriate administrative and management skills to effectively achieve the ultimate aims and goals of the fire service."

The study concludes with a number of recommendations regarding the department. The first one calls for an appointment system for designating the chief and deputy chief by an "independent selection committee." Currently, the chiefs are selected by department members in a vote.

A motion was passed to advertise externally for a new fire chief, but the motion was subsequently rescinded at the March 21 council meeting. All those in attendance supported the motion to rescind the advertisement, excluding Coun. Tony Dominix, who is also council's liaison for the fire department.

Seymour was outside the province at the time of the meeting.

Hiscock commended by mayor

Mayor Drover said the town will work with the department to help it improve. He said the town will put a committee in place to look at the functions of the chief and create a policy in conjunction with the department.

Drover commended Gerald Hiscock for the work he did on the study.

"Like everything else, I guess nobody agrees 100 per cent with everything that someone does, but he's very knowledgeable and very qualified to do the report."

Seymour also supports the findings of the report, and in her view, she never lost the full support of fellow firefighters. However, she believes some members would be happy if she left the brigade.

She's already seeing signs the department is moving in a positive direction. This past weekend, about a dozen members from Spaniard's Bay were set to attend a two-day defensive firefighting training course in Cavendish.

Meanwhile, Chief Hiscock declined an interview request.

arobinson@cbncompass.ca