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Squamish firefighters used gum to mask alcohol smell, former chief says

Gardner says issue of alcohol was never raised



The former chief of the Squamish Fire Rescue Department says he was fired for trying to institute a "no alcohol" policy at the fire hall.

But Squamish Mayor Greg Gardner says Ray Saurette's "allegation that he was terminated because of alcohol-related issues is absolutely not true."

Whether Squamish residents should be concerned about firefighters attending incidents while under the influence of alcohol is not clear.

Saurette was fired last week after a closed-door meeting with council and Chief Administrative Officer Kevin Ramsay. There in a presentation they laid out a series of concerns with his performance; among them his relationship with a group of volunteer firefighters who sent a series of "disparaging" e-mails about the chief to the administrator.

In a statement sent to media last week, Saurette writes that the District of Squamish council terminated him because he came up against a municipality that wants to retain the hall's alcohol privileges so that it can keep attracting volunteer firefighters.

"Just as we would not want to be operated on by a surgeon that has just come from the tavern, people in emergency want to ensure that the first responders helping them are not clouded by the effects of alcohol," he wrote.

"In a serious breach of industry and social standard, Squamish Council has since given the go ahead for firefighters to consume alcohol at the fire halls on the premise of retaining volunteers," Saurette wrote. "This means, when the pager goes off, firefighters often abandoned their beer in the firefighters lounge to jump on a fire truck. A supply of gum is kept at the fire halls and on the trucks for the main purpose of masking the smell of alcohol."

In an interview with Pique Saurette clarified that firefighters weren't drunk when they attended fires.

"Again, I'm not going to say inebriated. Under the influence, yes.

"After training sessions we've had calls on a Friday night and during happy hour, a call came in. Guys get on the truck, guys have been out on a call, come back and had a beer or two, (and gone) back out in the truck. Those have happened."

Gardner said Saurette never raised the issue of alcohol consumption.

"I was on council for two and a half years. In addition to that I've been mayor for one year. Particularly as mayor, I met with Mr. Saurette on many occasions, multiple times per week, and not once did he express any concern about members of his staff, career or volunteer, responding to calls while under the influence of alcohol.

"The first time I heard about a concern about that is the day after the fire chief's employment was terminated," Gardner said.

Saurette, who was chief of the Squamish Fire Rescue Department for nine years, disputes Gardner's claim that the alcohol policy never came up at the meeting where he was terminated. In a submission to the hearing he wrote that he took steps at the direction of "council and senior management" to crack down on drinking at Squamish Fire and Rescue.

Last December he announced that drinking would no longer be permitted on District premises, consistent with a District policy that doesn't allow alcohol on municipal premises - a move that Saurette says wasn't well accepted by some volunteer staff.

It was this move, according to Saurette, that triggered a series of e-mails to the administrator from disgruntled volunteer firefighters who wanted to get rid of him.

"Some of the volunteers, a small group, took exception to that," he said. "They created a little team or whatever, lobbied council to change that directive and council then said okay, I guess they were asked to create a lease agreement, so council said fair enough, we'll allow that to happen.

"What that created is a legal loophole between the District of Squamish and the firefighters' association to allow the continuance of alcohol consumption in the lounge."

Gardner, who was mayor at the time, doesn't recall a "no alcohol" policy coming before council but he did say that the firefighters' association leases a private area where such a policy wouldn't apply.

In an additional statement e-mailed to Pique later in the week Saurette wrote that he was given instruction to "appease these senior volunteer firefighters" who feel they have a right to drink at the fire hall, or else face termination.

"My heart and soul cannot allow political pressures or alliances to compromise the integrity of Squamish Fire Rescue," he wrote in his second statement. "I am sickened by the fact that life safety in this community has been compromised by partisan politics."

Saurette, speaking in an interview with Pique , admits there weren't any alcohol-related incidents among firefighters while he served as chief.

"There may have been in the past, during my time I can't say yes," he said. "Do I have suspicions? Possibly but they're not founded, I didn't discipline anybody for anything and no one's brought my attention where there would be specific action (that) needs to be taken."



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