Grand Forks plans to have fire chief Dale Heriot return to work, despite the department leader being found by an external city investigation to have bullied and harassed a member of the department.
In a letter to the original complainant obtained by the Grand Forks Gazette, the city acknowledged that actions by the fire chief constituted as bullying and harassment, as defined by WorkSafeBC.
“Through both the facts and findings it is evident that the complainant has experienced ‘patterns of social isolation’ instigated by the Fire Chief in an attempt to ‘humiliate and intimidate’ him,” reads the letter signed by the city’s chief administrative officer Diane Heinrich.
According to the city, the consulting firm made a recommendation to Heriot during the external investigation that he allow the volunteer firefighter to be notified of and respond to calls – a role he suddenly disallowed in April.
However, his decision not to follow the “strong advice” was found to amount to “’sabotaging someone’s work,’ which [Heriot] ought to have known would cause the complainant to be humiliated,” the letter from the city reads.
Heriot has been on paid administrative leave since May 10. Grand Forks deputy corporate officer Kevin McKinnon told Black Press Media that city staff are working on a “return to work” plan for the chief.
Four other firefighters now also on leave
“This process has been incredibly frustrating,” the complainant said about the three-month timeline since he filed the original complaint with WorkSafeBC. The volunteer firefighter spoke to the Gazette on the condition of anonymity.
The incident began in early March, when the complainant brought forward a number of safety concerns to Heriot, including the department’s absence to conduct annual tests for hose equipment and fit tests for crews. The disagreement between him and Heriot sparked a third-party human resources investigation, which cost the city $10,000.
As both the third-party HR investigation went on, as well as the WorkSafeBC inspection, the firefighter said that tensions began to rise within the department.
Since being made aware of the fire chief allegedly excluding him from calls, the fire department has apparently updated its policy on callouts to “ensure that it can be applied consistently to all members,” McKinnon said.
The city has also completed tests on the fire hoses and on the seals on the self-contained breathing masks used when responding to a fire, as per a WorkSafeBC order.
Amid the changes, the complainant is remaining cautiously optimistic.
“I’m happy that the city has taken the complaints seriously and it is my hope that they follow the recommendations of the third-party human resources consultant,” he said.
The city also confirmed that the volunteer firefighter will be able to return to his duties at the fire hall, but only after he meets with the acting fire chief.
However, the volunteer firefighter has also filed another complaint to WorkSafeBC – this time against Deputy Chief Rich Piché, citing allegations of bullying, harassment and retaliation. That investigation is still underway and Black Press Media has requested further information from WorkSafeBC.
In addition to Piché, three other veteran firefighters have gone on leave. One member has requested a six-month leave while three others have requested leaves up to three months.
McKinnon said in an email that, despite the loss of several long-serving members, the department is adequately staffed with experienced firefighters and that recent practice attendance “has been in line with seasonal norms.”
Bullying and harassment training incomplete
The April WorkSafeBC investigation also found that the Grand Forks fire department did not meet appropriate standards for workplace bullying and harassment training for its members. As such, the department resolved to hold seminars to ensure that all staff were suitably trained.
“It is encouraging that the recent safety issues have been addressed and that the department finally meets WorkSafeBC industry standards,” said the complainant.
As it stands, 23 of the 45 members of the department have participated in a sanctioned workplace bullying and harassment seminar.
“With 22 members still to go,” said McKinnon, “an additional session will be held on an upcoming practice night, subject to summertime attendance.” The department will then hold one-on-one training with any members who missed out on both sessions.
It is unclear when Heriot will return to his role as fire chief.
The Gazette contacted Heriot, who said he could not comment at this time.