By Bill Eluchok of The Free Press

 The London Fire Fighters’ Association has asked Mayor Jane Bigelow for assurances that city firemen will not be used as chauffeurs for elected officials again unless for emergency situations.

In a letter handed to the Mayor on Tuesday, the Association also suggested an apology be made to a fireman used on Friday to drive three city controllers to Ottawa.

The controllers, Mike Ferris, Charles Ross and Orlando Zamprogna, had decided at the last minute to drive to Ottawa and lobby against plans by the federal government to close the city’s Canadian Forces Base.

The move was later criticized by Mayor Bigelow as a “hysterical thing to do” and one which had a “smell of politics” to it.

Gary Weese, secretary of the Firefighters’ Association, said the “inconvenience” mentioned in the organization’s letter to the Mayor referred to the 32 hours the fireman, Patrick O’Brien, spent in continuous duty in driving the controllers to Ottawa.

He said the Association’s protest centred primarily on the fact a fireman was used for duties other than fire protection or prevention, contrary to the province’s Fire Departments Act.

The position taken by the Association, said Mr. Weese, is that the lobbying trip did not warrant classification as an emergency under terms of the Act.

In the letter, the Association also reminded the city that it withdrew chauffeurs earlier this year for both the fire chief and deputy chief.

Although the step was cited by council as an economy measure, the Association saw it as a move to avoid the hiring of additional firemen.

The Association feels the city should decide once and for all whether it still wants firemen to be retained for chauffeuring duties.  If it does, additional personnel should be hired to compensate for the loss of such staff.

There was no immediate comment from Mayor Bigelow.  Con. Zamprogna only shrugged when asked for comment on the letter.

The controller said earlier this week the surprise trip may have convinced “two or three” federal cabinet ministers the base in London should be retained.

Con. Ross said Tuesday he had been surprised and disappointed that the Mayor had criticized the trip, particularly since the controllers attempted to reach her by telephone before leaving and had contacted her on arriving in the capital.

He said that had the controllers attempted to make “political hay” out of the lobbying effort, they would have made a substantial play to the press.  This, the controller said, they did not do.

“We felt we had a job to do – and we did it.  If the Mayor felt the way she did, that’s too bad,” he said.  “Frankly, I don’t see why we have to be defensive about it.”

Con. Ross also criticized the Mayor for what he described as her failure “to follow up on the base closing.  She simply didn’t know what was going on (in Ottawa), what was happening.”

He said Mayor Bigelow had over-reacted because “it looked as though we were doing her job for her.”

The controller also was critical of the press for widely reporting the Mayor’s comments on the trip, as well as those of Firefighters’ Association President Art Ordish, who was upset that a first-class fireman had been used to drive the trio.

Con. Ross passed off the latter criticisms as a “personal campaign launched by one man (Mr. Ordish)” and “inner-union politics” to enhance the President’s stature within the Association.

“I’d do it again,” the controller said, adding he was prepared to repeat the trip if contacted by his Ottawa source that the base closure matter would for certain be on the cabinet’s agenda on Thursday for discussion, as it is expected to be.

The controller would not disclose his source but said he had been surprised to learn one item of information during last weekend’s trip – that the city’s brief to the federal government urging the base be retained had not been given the distribution that was intended.

Con. Ross said he discovered the brief still had not been put into the hands of the ministers most responsible for the eventual decision on the base.  He blamed Mayor Bigelow for failing to ensure this would be done.

The controller declined further comment when asked to elaborate but did say the only minister to have received the brief was Public Works Minister Judd Buchanan, who represents London West in the Commons.