Fire Chief Heads Emergency Response Team

By John Swartz

Brent Thomas hasn’t been chief of the Orillia Fire Department for a year and he’s being put to the test as the chair of the Emergency Response Team. In the fire fighting world periods of intense activity come and go, but it’s been 5 days of non-stop, push go and keep going and no end in sight for him.

‘Oh yeah, it’s pretty constant.  It’s seems like every waking moment I’m on the phone, a text or email, or something,” Thomas said. The days are long.

“It varies. My first phone call starts somewhere around 7 (a.m.) and goes ‘til 9 or 10, or 11 (p.m.) or so. It’s long days, but it’s necessary to make sure everybody’s covered and safe.”

Once the emergency was declared last Saturday, council became the backseat of municipal affairs and a team of people consisting of top management from within City Hall and several community agencies like the OPP and the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit are directing things. As chair, Thomas does have some ability to act as needed, but both he and the mayor say they don’t see a case where the advice of the emergency team won’t have a role.

“I am one of a committee that’s in charge. The emergency management committee of our emergency control group is the ones making decisions, so myself, the mayor, the CAO and then our communications manger are kind of tied at the hip, virtually.”

“We meet at least once a day by phone and then our primary emergency control group, we pull them in every weekday, we’ve got a call with them, but we’re constantly pulling in the people we need.”

‘We’ve got the right people making the right decisions with the power, certainly power, but they can push the trigger, push the resources and get what we need to do based on the decision.”

They aren’t making it up as they go to the extent there is a recently updated manual outlining responsibilities and actions to be considered – even though this pandemic specifically wasn’t on anyone’s radar until the New Year.

Orillia Fire Chief Brent Thomas
Orillia Fire Chief Brent Thomas

“Under the Emergency (Management and Civil) Protection Act you have to have practical scenario runs meetings to show preparedness,” Thomas said. “We’re exercising, we’re training and we’re testing it out multiple times a year as it is. We kind of knew where we were headed once we made the decision, so I wouldn’t say we’re feeling the weight any different now.”

Thomas said the central office is at the Gill Street fire hall, but most of the meetings and consultations are done by conference call, so far, they do have the ability to do video conferences.

The fire department does have four officers in self-isolation. Two had been on vacation and two had family members return from vacation. Two are returning to work next week, a third the week after. There have been no fire fighters exposed to potential virus transmission situations on the job.

“We’re taking appropriate precautions with PPE, personal protective equipment,” Thomas said.

Right now, most of the work involves making sure everyone in the community is following guidelines (which turned into orders under both provincial and Orillia’s declarations).

“We already have on the radar our high target areas, where people are going to grocery stores and pharmacies and that kind of thing. We have seen people out there trying to be proactive. It boils down to this thing is changing so fast. We want to stay ahead and try not to be reactive, but if things change we just have to roll with it.”

He’s also dealing a lot with the media

‘It’s almost a full-time job in itself.”

“To me getting the right message out here and dispelling misinformation is important.” Thomas said. “That’s truly what I spend a lot of my time doing. You hear something, or someone changes a word to fit in a post so it fits on a screen or whatever, and the one or two word change ends up changing the intent. So I’m chasing information that’s almost correct.”

SUNonline/Orillia is not one to have received such a phone call.

So far, he like the mayor, and other officials have been reluctant to use the power of the law to make people comply with orders. Many people have complained online of individuals who flout the emergency measures and want to know what to do.

“We’ve had conversations with the OPP around the enforcement piece. We are concerned about the people that are not following the direction.”

“We’re hoping we don’t need to go the enforcement route, but that certainly is not off the table if we don’t have people who are complying and potentially infecting people.”

Wednesday the City of Orillia issued a release with some changed wording regarding previous directions. The most notable is the inclusion of the word ‘must’ at the top of the list:

You must do the following to practice social/physical distancing:

  • Recreational activities: If you visit a park or trail to take a walk or run, you must ensure you maintain a two-metre distance between you and others. Walking and running groups who continue to meet should take extra caution to ensure they are maintaining this distance.
  • Waste collection services – You must keep a two-metre distance from waste collection operators. Remember: All garbage must be bagged and sealed properly. Anything not bagged will be left behind. All green bin organic materials must be placed in a certified compostable bag or liner.
  • Transit Service – Passengers are to board and exit the bus from the rear doors. Passengers with accessibility requirements are permitted to use the front door if necessary. Fares are waived to further encourage social/physical distancing from the bus operator.
  • Essential shopping: If you need to go shopping, you must follow social/physical distancing rules and respect the measures merchants and employees have put in place.
  • Essential services: If you are still working as an essential service – thank you – and you must ensure you are practicing safe social/physical distancing in your workplace.
  • Speak up: Feel empowered to speak up for yourself to maintain social/physical distancing.

It’s a source of frustration for Thomas, the mayor, and other officials when they see or hear of people who are not taking this thing seriously. The province has authorized the OPP to issue tickets, which start at $750.

“We’re hoping we don’t need to go the enforcement route, but that certainly is not off the table if we don’t have people who are complying and potentially infecting people.”

People can make concerns and complaints known to the OPP by calling 1-888-310-1122, or filling out the online form.

(Photo by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia and Supplied)


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