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Opinion: Contractors moonlight as firefighters, too


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November 13, 2013 by Brynna Leslie

**Photo Credit: potowizard on freedigitalphotos.net**

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.

Read Firefighters in Construction, Part 1

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.


Brynna Leslie

Brynna Leslie

Brynna Leslie, contributing editor to Canadian Contractor, is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa.
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2 Comments » for Opinion: Contractors moonlight as firefighters, too
  1. Patrick Grieco says:

    I don’t speak for Alec Caldwell but I do understand where he is coming from and my experience with moonlighting firefighters is the same as his. I live and run and renovation business in the City of Toronto. Our firefighters are full time employees of the city, there are no volunteers and the same goes for all the regions surrounding Toronto (Mississauga, York, Brampton, Vaughan, etc.) I routinely see pickups at Home Depot & Rona with firefighter license plates loading up on materials, I see the same pickup trucks at residential construction sites. I have customers who have hired these off duty firefighters to do electrical work and contracting work. By and large, they are not licensed and don’t know what the hell they are doing and I end up having to redo a lot of shoddy work. I know firefighters who moonlight as cash contractors so your way off base.

    I have commented on this issue earlier this year and I will will restate it again now, if a firefighter wants to get a trade license, a business license, register and pay taxes and WSIB and deal with all the other BS legitimate contractors deal with on a day to day basis, they they are more than welcome to work in this industry and compete with us. But they have to do it on a level playing field. Comparing a cash contractor’s business model to a legitimate contractor’s is like comparing apples to oranges.

  2. todd wilson says:

    One point which has been over looked on moonlighting not just fire fighters but any public sector working in any province is that these employess are paid by the tax payer and have large benifit plans to help subdidise their retirement ,where as the private sector has to create their own retiremnt plan. When there is unemployment in this industrie a public sector worker should not be able to jeprodise possible employment in the private sector . if you chosse to work in the public sector then that is soley where your employment comes from its not that the wage and benifit plans put them in the poverty class. Where as some one not working has a dificult time to pay bills and eat.