Opinion: Contractors moonlight as firefighters, tooCanadian Contractor contractors firefighters home builders association underground economy
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As a freelance contributor to Canadian Contractor, I was appalled by Alec Caldwell’s recent piece on firefighters in construction and the comments that accompanied them.
Before you go checking your local fire station for contractor stickers on pick-ups you may want to consider this: Ninety per cent of fire stations in this country are manned by volunteers. Seventy-eight per cent of firefighters are volunteers.
Chances are higher that your local contractor is moonlighting as a firefighter than the other way around. When these guys get the call to a burning building – whether it’s in the middle of their work day on a job site or in the middle of the night – they get in their contractor trucks and boot it to the fire station.
Perhaps you think this is irrelevant, but I don’t believe it is, especially given the fraudulent cease-and-desist order Caldwell seems to be putting forward.
Caldwell’s argument, I think, is two-fold: 1) That salaried firefighters who work 24-hour shifts and then go work on renovations may pose a safety issue due to fatigue; and 2) That salaried firefighters are necessarily doing cash jobs, thereby bypassing safety, insurance and other regulatory issues and undermining the industry generally.
On the first issue, one reader comment, a retired firefighter, was particularly poignant, “unless [firefighters] are up all night on runs they will be just as ready as anyone else.” This is true. I have friends who are firefighters and paramedics in the City of Ottawa. It’s rare that they’re actually working for the entirety of their shifts. Much of the time is spent sleeping, eating, essentially living at their posts. They get paid the big bucks because they have to have the training and adrenaline to be able to wake up and respond at any time of day or night when they get those calls. They are paid the big bucks to be on alert. Studies on shift work have shown it is, in fact, easier on their health, if they do fewer shifts over longer hours. Their bodies can only spend so much time in that readied state.
It’s doubtful any individual, let alone a firefighter, would go to a job site after accumulative sleep deprivation. While it’s difficult to prove this, I think to assume otherwise is also dangerous.
On the second note, Caldwell assumes that salaried firefighters working in construction are doing cash jobs. I think we can all agree that bypassing safety regulations – including having appropriate contracts, training and insurance – is dangerous to the industry. But I also think that for every single firefighter you may find out there doing cash jobs, there are a hundred “legitimate contractors” doing the same, maybe more. The Canadian Home Builders Association and its members have long identified the underground economy as a problem within the industry, itself.
In fact, Pulse Survey results by the Canadian Home Builders Association have consistently estimated that, since the introduction of the GST in the nineties, one-third of all home renovations and construction are conducted in the underground economy, most of them done by so-called legitimate contractors.
If you’re not concerned about the safety issues, but about the competition factor, I would say this: Providing the firefighters are doing legitimate, above-ground contracting work, there’s no reason they can’t earn a salary with benefits and work another job on the side. Anyone can do it.
In fact, I can tell you, as someone who earns a living as a writer, it happens in my line of work all the time.
It’s my job as a business owner to make sure I can differentiate the quality and professionalism of my work. And it’s your job, too.
Is the Ajax firefighters’ ruling really that significant for this industry? I don’t think so.