A former firefighter dismissed because of his age says a lack of manpower often makes it impossible for the Chilliwack Fire Department (CFD) to adhere to operational guidelines meant to reduce health and safety risks.
Russell Shellard has asked the BC Human Rights Tribunal to rule that the City of Chilliwack's mandatory retirement age of 60 for firefighters is discriminatory. On Friday, the tribunal declined to throw out Shellard's complaint.
Shellard, formerly a paid-on-call firefighter, was forced out of the department at the start of 2012.
In his submission to the tribunal, Shellard argued "it is not uncommon with CFD fire ground scenes to be lacking sufficient manpower in order to follow operational guidelines set out to reduce health and safety risks for firefighters. . . . The older personnel, because of life experiences, are vital and help reduce the risk of health and safety on all emergency scenes."
The city says the age requirement is needed because the job's physical demands put older firefighters more at risk of deadly on-the-job heart attacks.
According to the tribunal's ruling, Fire Chief Rick Ryall suggested "the work for paid-on-call firefighters is more dangerous than for full-time career firefighters" because they can be paged at any time and must
quickly spring into action with little to no prior notice.
Ryall explained the decision in a letter to Shellard:
"The most recent research into firefighters' health issues and fatalities has reinforced our convictions that our existing retirement policy is sound," he wrote. "Our decision concerning your request is not based on your personal attributes as a firefighter or your past service with the Chilliwack Fire Department, but rather is a policy decision meant to protect the safety of all suppression firefighters."
The city asked the tribunal to throw out Shellard's complaint and pointed to an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ruling that accepted that the City of London was justified in requiring firefighers to retire at a certain age.
But Shellard said he performed well in training that demanded a degree of exertion never demanded on a real fire scene.
"Most of the calls that I attended in my service with CFD were routine without much exertion attached to them," he told the Tribunal. "However, lack of manpower quite often leads to a situation of an overworked fire brigade which as I have mentioned is not uncommon and I have witnessed this personally."
Shellard also said that when he completed the fire department's training program at the age of 56, he was never notified that he would be required to retire just four years later.
Tribunal member Norman Trerise said the city has shown that its mandatory retirement age was adopted in good faith for a rational purpose. But in refusing to throw out Shellard's complaint, Trerise said it is less clear whether the city could reasonably accommodate older firefighters by using testing to reduce the risk of on-the-job heart attacks.
With that, Trerise rejected the city's application to dismiss the complaint and paved the way for it to continue to a hearing. According to the tribunal's website, a date for the hearing has not yet been set.