Prime Minister Dr. Kenny Anthony on Sunday announced plans to have Fire Chief Leslie Fontenelle removed from his post and placed as an aircraft rescue and fire fighting advisor for the Saint Lucia Airport and Seaports Authority (SLASPA).
In his address to the nation, relating to the industrial action taken by the St. Lucia Fire Service Association (SLFSA), Dr. Anthony said Fontenelle has agreed to the proposal. The prime minister said Fontenelle’s role will ensure that all of the protocols attendant to an efficient fire service at the airports and seaports are applied at all times.
“Fontenelle will assume his new duties at SLASPA on the completion of his current period of leave earned in the Fire Service,” he added.
The SLFSA has been calling for the removal of the fire chief who they claim is responsible for the “disrespect” shown to firefighters. While a Commission of Inquiry (COI) was conducted on the alleged unlawful behaviour and misconduct of Fontenelle, among other senior fire officials which later found them culpable of such behaviour, the recommendations did not warrant an expulsion of these officials, especially the fire chief himself.
The prime minister used this in his argument and said that the only recommendation relating to the fire chief was to have him placed on contract. Dr. Anthony however, reiterated that this recommendation was unlawful and would have required legislative change.
“The commissioner never recommended the dismissal or the removal of the chief fire officer or that disciplinary action launched against him,” he explained.
Further, Dr. Anthony expressed disappointment at the action of the firefighters, stating they abandoned their duties at a time when the country is faced with a serious economic problem, and showed no respect for human life after failing to respond to calls of emergencies. He recalled his experience in the trade union movement, where despite differences, workers whether public or private sector, would seek to minimise any damage.
He has since called for the modernisation of the Saint Lucia Fire Service to create a greater understanding among ranks at all levels and for the better good of the island. He was quick to point out that some of the regulations governing the SLFSA are outdated. He said having the chief fire officer preside over elections invites conflict and disagreement, while suggesting that this should also be removed as part of the modernisation.
Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony said in his opinion “discipline has virtually broken down” in the Fire Service.
“New rules need to be enacted to ensure that there is full respect for the women officers by both senior and junior officers in the Fire Service. We need to bring an end to the lawlessness that prevails in the Fire Service,” he stated.
The prime minister also made a commitment to have the issues between all parties resolved amicably.
SEE THE PM’S FULL SPEECH BELOW
WE MUST HEAL AND MODERNIZE THE FIRE SERVICE
DR THE HON. KENNY D. ANTHONY,
PRIME MINISTER AND MINISTER FOR FINANCE, ECONOMIC AFFAIRS, PLANNING AND SOCIAL SECURITY
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2014
Fellow Saint Lucians, Citizens, Ladies and Gentlemen!
Good evening to one and all!
Over the past few days, we have all experienced another round of industrial action by some members of the Fire Service Association. This is the third time since this Government has been elected to office that the Fire Service Association has embarked on industrial action.
As it is well known, the Fire Service is entrusted with the responsibility to respond to fires in our homes, business places, offices, factories and communities, transport the sick and injured to our hospitals, rescue persons in distress and crucially, provide trained personnel to man our airports to respond to aircrafts in emergency. Without fire service personnel at our airports, aircraft will neither land nor take-off. Given our near absolute dependence on tourism, arrival and departure of our guests, any withdrawal of labour by fire service personnel would do untold damage to our economy.
It is a tragedy that despite our current economic challenges, some would choose to add to our collective distress.
PAUSE FOR CONCERN
I believe that all will agree that the Fire Service is an absolutely essential service.
Recent events should, however, give all of us reason for concern. In my years as a trade unionist, I have always known that no matter what the problem may be with a Government or a private sector employer, efforts would be made to protect the interests of the vulnerable members of the public, especially when they are confronted with emergencies over which they have no control. Over the last few days, citizens who needed ambulance services were left stranded as some fire officers refused to take or handle emergency calls. Even in the midst of conflict or disagreement, we should never lose respect for human life. We have a responsibility to take care of the helpless in our midst.
I want to thank however, all those officers who opted to remain at work, particularly those officers who kept our airports open and allowed the uninterrupted movements of aircraft to and from Saint Lucia. I thank all of you, immeasurably. Many of you chose to put the welfare of your country first, and that was commendable!
THE CURRENT IMPASSE
The current impasse has its genesis in major disagreements between the Fire Service Association and the leadership of the Fire Service. It has been said that the disagreements have been in existence for several years, some say for the past six years. Indeed the sole Commissioner of the Commission of Enquiry into “The Conduct and Management of the Saint Lucia Fire Service and the Laws Relating Thereto” dates the issues as commencing “at least since 2009.”[Page 41, Report]
It is simply erroneous, unfair and unjustified to suggest that this Government did nothing about the complaints of the Fire Service Association or the Report of the Commission of Enquiry. Indeed, it was this Government that persuaded the Fire Service Association to agree to the setting up of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the complaints and the issues bedevilling the Fire Service. Some of the recommendations within the purview of the Government have already been acted upon.
I will itemize the principal findings of the Commissioner, Dr Francis Alexis, so that you would have a better understanding of the approaches of the Government to this vexed matter.
FINDINGS OF THE COMMISSIONER
The Commissioner found evidence of “unequal treatment” being meted out by the management of the Fire Service particularly in matters of promotion, “training and allowances; as well as in administering or recommending the administration of, disciplinary action.” [Page 23, Para.15.02, Report]. He noted that Fire Officers “complained that promotions were not in accordance with equal treatment and equal opportunity.”[Para 17.01, page 24, Report]. The Commissioner found evidence of insensitivity. He wrote, “The display of insensitivity by some members of the [Fire Service] management towards their subordinates is sometimes amazing.” Para 23.01, page 35, Report]. He found evidence that issues were personalized and as he put it “Apparent inconsistences consistently bedevilled Fontenelle”, the Chief Fire Officer [Para 24.16, Page 38, Report], wryly commenting that the “Chief Fire Officer seems to administer different strokes for different folks”. [Para. 24.21, Page 39, Report]There were other complaints and allegations which were itemized by the Commissioner but did not attract definitive findings or conclusions.
Early in his report, the Commissioner reported that “The cumulative effect of such factors has been the plunging of the Saint Lucia Fire Service into a situation whose manifestations included disrespect or disregard by subordinates for superiors, indiscipline, sick-outs, industrial unrest. Morale among junior and middle ranks, he said, sank to ‘its lowest ever’, at ‘an all- time low.”[Para 15.03, Page 23, Report]
The recommendations of the Commissioner were few and far between. He made only two recommendations on personnel matters. Curiously, he did not recommend the removal or the disciplining of the Chief Fire Officer. Instead, he recommended that “Mr. Leslie Fontenelle should immediately, be put on contract as Chief Fire Officer of the St Lucia Fire Service; as was agreed to by him at the Commission.” This, he said, “will afford time to Mr. Fontenelle and his subordinates to adjust to the new dispensation which will come out of the Commission, as shown by the Saint Lucia Fire Service Management and the Fire Service Association reaching that agreement during the last sitting of the Commission.”[Para 26.07, Page 42, Report].
He also recommended that “ Mr. Ditney Downes, Divisional Officer, Officer-in- Charge ’C’ or Southern Division should immediately be transferred from that Division to Fire Service Headquarters. This will afford time to Mr. Downes and his colleagues at “C” or ‘Southern Division’ time to adjust to the new dispensation…” Mr. Downes has accordingly been transferred.
The other recommendations dealt with miscellaneous amendments to the Fire Service Act, Cap. 14.04, Revised Laws of Saint Lucia. Work has begun on these recommendations.
I wish to reiterate that contrary to what has been said, the Commissioner never recommended the dismissal or the removal of the Chief Fire officer or that disciplinary action be launched against him. It may well have been that he was preoccupied in healing the deep wounds in the Fire Service or that he felt that the matter of the removal of Mr. Fontenelle properly fell to the jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission to be determined by the totality of the evidence available to the Commission from the enquiry.
The recommendation of the Commissioner that Mr. Fontenelle “be put on contract” is not free of difficulty. It would be unlawful, in fact, unconstitutional for the Government to legislate a change to the terms and conditions of employment of Mr. Fontenelle unilaterally and put him, compulsorily, on contract. The Commissioner may well have understood this when he recommended that this be done by consent, by the explicit agreement of Mr. Fontenelle.
In the event, Mr. Fontenelle has disputed that there was agreement that he would proceed on contract. But if as it has been suggested, that Mr. Fontenelle is the principal cause of the problems in the Fire Service, then putting him on contract for two years would not resolve the burning issues of the Fire Service.
It’s clear too that given the Disciplinary Procedures of the Public Service Commission, proceedings against Mr. Fontenelle would only prolong a final resolution.
TOWARDS A RESOLUTION
In the circumstances, a different approach has had to be fashioned.
Mr. Fontenelle has now agreed that he would be seconded to the Saint Lucia Airport and Seaports Authority [SLASPA] to be its Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting Advisor. In this role, he will ensure that all of the protocols attendant to an efficient fire service at the airports and seaports are applied at all times. Mr Fontenelle will assume his new duties at SLASPA on the completion of his current period of leave earned in the Fire Service.
Secondly, it should be clear that there are deep fissures in the Saint Lucia Fire Service. Discipline has virtually broken down. As stated earlier, the Commissioner pointed out several instances of this by both subordinates and senior officers. Transparent procedures need to be put in place to govern promotions so that all officers could feel that they are treated fairly, equally and without discrimination. New rules need to be enacted to ensure that there is full respect for the women officers by both senior and junior officers in the Fire Service.
We need to bring an end to the lawlessness that prevails in the Fire Service. The management of the Fire Service as well as the Fire Service Association only seem to invoke or apply the prevailing laws and rules of the Fire Service when it appears to be convenient to do so. But in fairness, some of the regulations governing the Fire Association are outdated. For example, the regulations governing the business of the Fire Service Association require the Chief Fire Officer to preside over elections of the executive of the Fire Service Association. Such a rule invites conflict and disagreement as has happened over the past few days.
These things should not be happening in this day and age. It is clear that the Report of the Commission of Enquiry did not address these issues, perhaps because they did not fall with sufficient clarity within the remit of the Commission.
The truth is that the Fire Service, constructed prior to our independence, badly needs to be healed and modernized.
For that reason, I have sought technical assistance from the British Government to assist in modernizing the Fire Service. The British Government has in principle, agreed to a request from the Government of Saint Lucia to provide a small team of experts, which will work alongside a representative from a Caribbean Fire Service, to conduct a review of the structure, operations, promotions policy and overall organization of the Saint Lucia Fire Service. We need independent external help because the parties to the impasse do not trust each other to resolve their differences amicably, in the interest of the Fire Service and the country.
The British Government, whose own Fire Services have undergone much modernization in the last few decades, will work with the Government of Saint Lucia over the coming weeks to agree on terms of reference for the review and the logistical details.
I trust that these decisions will go some way to bring peace and understanding among all.
I bid one and all a good evening and the blessings of Our Lord and Saviour.