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Fall Story

The making and unmaking of Dufferin Grove Park

A summer serial, continuing into the fall, November 10, 2011, Chapter Seventeen

By: Jutta Mason

Recap: Dufferin Grove Park is doing things that don’t fit the city’s policies, says the current management of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). The way the park is run leaves the city “vulnerable and open to major risk factors.” So a new supervisor, Wendy Jang, was placed there last May. One of her tasks was to dissect out the traditional activities from the many “programs that represent anomalies for PFR.”

Wendy is supposed to be replaced by another supervisor, Glen Synowicki, on November 15. Wendy Jang’s boss, recreation manager Kelvin Seow, has just been switched to Scarborough, with the Scarborough manager, Sue Bartleman, coming downtown. Meantime, the Dufferin Grove anomalies are stubbornly clinging to life, as the rink season nears. Some of the Dufferin Grove part-time staff have left. Those still here are trying to prepare for winter now, with some difficulty. In this chapter I want to continue my story about the staff at the park, this time looking at a shift in focus from staff output – how lively they make a park – to inputs, the training and certification of PFR’s part-time program staff, and continuous compliance monitoring afterwards. That shift, accelerating in the last two years under the most recent management, has played a role in unmaking not only Dufferin Grove, but park-based recreation programs all over the city. My story this time is a bit longer, so the dictionary page is on hold until the next chapter.

A sudden jump in training programs or certification requirements often seems to follow a crisis, sometimes not even a very big one, in the daily running of PFR programs. That’s too bad, because crises – unexpected events where someone gets hurt, or even just alarmed – can often be mined for insights and for solutions to the problem that caused the crisis.

An example is a misadventure about eight years ago, at one of the city’s wading pools. Many wading pools are not very lively with children, especially if they don’t have much shade or much other fun going on nearby. One afternoon, two young wading pool staff at a small west-end park were sitting on a bench, bored and hot. There was nobody in the pool, or even in the little park around it. One of the staff told his companion that he could show her how to make a water bottle explode with the help of the pool’s chlorine supply. He put some water and a few drops of chlorine in the bottle, put on the screw top, and shook the bottle. It exploded more violently than he had anticipated, and his companion found herself temporarily blinded.

Her vision returned – fully – a few hours later, and there were no residual bad effects. But of course the alarming story spread fast among city staff, limited only by PFR management’s worried attempts at spin control – understandably, they wanted to prevent a front-page feature in the media: “Wading pools are dangerous, staff almost blow each other up.” Happily, the media’s attention was elsewhere.

The next step could have been a bit of soul-searching by the recreation supervisors. PFR prides itself on the number of youth they hire for their summer programs. PFR’s 2004 “Our Common Grounds” strategic plan boasts of being the city’s biggest youth employer: “thousands of students have their first job, and probably their best” through PFR. But a job that is so uninteresting that wading pool staff have to resort to making their own excitement, with as little supervision as kids playing with matches, is nothing to brag about. There could have been some creative thinking, involving the young wading pool staff, of how to get more kids and caregivers back into the parks. At that time, the Dufferin Grove wading pool was already very busy, with storytelling, clay-building, wood sculptures, cheap percussion instruments and – always – food for the caregivers and the children. The summer staff were far too engaged with the lively hubbub to look for additional excitement. It would have been possible to try variants of those attractions at other wading pools and playgrounds.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, all of management’s attention went into expanding the wading pool training. Once this path was chosen, it followed its own ever-expanding logic. All wading pools were put under one separate, citywide management so that the training – and the monitoring of compliance – could be centrally controlled. In addition to issuing safety goggles and heavy rubber boots, the city purchased expensive hazard suits that would cover the wading pool staff from head to toe during chlorine additions to the pool water. The delivery of the chlorine bottles to the various wading pools was made more complicated: only those staff who had training and certification in the transportation of hazardous materials could bring new supplies to the wading pools. The certification courses were designed for people moving large containers of flammable or explosive material in big trucks. In the case of wading pools, the chlorine canisters were the same small plastic bottles that could be bought by anyone off the shelf at Canadian Tire – anyone, except for city staff. When a wading pool ran out of chlorine bottles (often, since restocking is a weak point, and wading pools are scattered all over the city), the pool had to close until a certified transport staff person became available to bring some more.

Dufferin Grove got its hazard suits and its central training too, but we were able to delay the central control of wading pool staff until this past summer. At the other wading pools, the trained staff changed slightly. They were still bored, but they became officious as well. During their training, staff learn very little about how to make fun for the kids at the pool. The focus of training is on compliance with legislation, by-laws, and city policies. And the policy most often breached is PFR’s prohibition against unauthorized photography. A fond parent takes out her cell phone to get a picture of little Mary splashing in the pool, and a second later, a vigilant wading pool attendant is there, saying that photography is not allowed. Since many people like to take pictures of their kids, this prohibition is an occasion for staff to apply their training, and at the same time for the young staff to enjoy the thrill of being the voice of authority, to people twice their age.

Most wading pools are plain concrete basins, but a few more recently constructed pools are more architecturally playful. One of the newer ones is at David Combie Park, on the Esplanade. One summer day I went to see various wading pools, and I discovered Crombie pool’s ingenious arch, which sends a curtain of water over the kids. I took a photo for the design page of the CELOS website. There were only two families at the pool. Although I stood so far away that the four kids in the pool were unidentifiable, one of the wading pool staff broke off his conversation with his companion and came over to tell me that I couldn’t take a picture. I said, “I only want one more, to show the pool design.” He said, “if you take another picture, I’ll call the police.” I took the picture and he took out his cell phone. I got on my bike to go to my next destination, and he called after me, “pedophile!”

Ever since then, I’ve checked with parents when I want to take a photo. But even when they say it’s fine, the young staff may insist that photos are not allowed. A rink user told us about skating at one of the underused outdoor compressor-cooled ice rinks in North York. A father had brought his son with new skates he got for his birthday. He wanted to film his son’s first skate for the grandparents. The staff told him to put away the camera, filming was not allowed. The rink user who was telling us this story said that he was the only other person on the ice, and he told the staff he didn’t mind the dad filming. No matter, said the rink guard: please put the camera away.

“Training” for winter rinks includes another important prohibition: no shinny hockey allowed without a helmet. The policy was made in 2002, but efforts to enforce it didn’t get into full swing until 2007. That year, citywide rink training emphasized the central importance of the helmet policy. At some rinks, the first thing a visitor saw coming into the rink change room was a huge hand-lettered banner saying no helmet? no shinny! The change rooms were dotted with other, smaller signs: no photography. No litter. No loitering. No chairs on the ice for people learning to skate. No shoes on the ice for non-skating parents trying to help their little ones to stand up. No strollers on the ice for skating mothers or fathers with babies.

Many skaters took the signs to heart and didn’t bother coming anymore at all. At some rinks, drop-in attendance plummeted. But when the supervisors came to check in, the rink guards had the satisfaction of having carried out all their training instructions. And when the supervisors left again, if the staff got back on the ice and found a few guys playing shinny hockey, they might decide to join them, since there was nothing else to do. One day I went by a double-pad rink on a very cold day, and found five guys playing shinny hockey. They were wearing woolly toques, which keep your ears from freezing, instead of helmets (which don’t keep your ears warm and don’t prevent concussions either, as we learn from the recent studies). I wanted to put an admiring photo on the cityrinks.ca website, captioned “Tough Canadians,” and so I took a picture. One of the shinny players stopped the game and shouted angrily, no photography allowed! I realized he was a rink guard, as was another one of the five. They probably thought they could get in trouble for playing shinny during their work time. In a case like that, the no-photography rule was doubly handy.

In any discussion about the point of the proliferating policies and regulations and the training that accompanies them, the reasons given are almost always “insurance” and “liability.” (In the case of photography, the link seems to be the responsibility of staff to prevent pedophiles from gaining photographs of children). But there’s very little concrete information (“hard data”) about the effectiveness of the training. And when a real-life problem comes up, it’s often hard to even see the relevance of all those training efforts. Here is a story of a rough night at Dufferin Rink, some years back, with a training analysis to follow:

Dufferin Rink Diary, Dec.3 2003 (entry by Jutta)

Until next week, there are only two rinks open in the whole city. So many guys have been coming to skate at Dufferin Rink that they can hardly move on the ice – it looks more like a cocktail party than a hockey game out there. I went to the rink in the evening to be an extra pair of hands.

We had two zamboni drivers for the mid-evening ice maintenance. One of them is a guy new to this rink, whom I haven't met before. He told me that he’d heard all about me and my bossiness, and that there was going to be a new regime, now that he had arrived. All evening he went around saying to the skaters, who the hell is she? She doesn’t run this place, I do, don’t listen to her.

A lot of them didn’t say anything. When it came time to clean the ice, the new zamboni driver raised the lift gate, and I went out with the two rink guards to clear this mass of humanity off so the zamboni could go on. The new zamboni guy saw me, and something weird must have gone off in his brain. He said to the skaters, I told you, don’t listen to her.

The frustration of the crowding must have kicked in, even more so for all those guys who don’t normally come here except when no other rinks are open, and so have no attachment to the way things go at this rink. Most skaters decided to stay on the ice and not go off for the zamboni. As the zamboni driver was still raising the lift gate, they skated underneath and started shooting the puck around on the pleasure-skating side too. Pucks were flying, and the rink guards were yelling at people to get off. Lots of skaters ignored them and started to shove each other and play-fight. Some guys yanked each others’ shirts off. I blew my whistle, but the new zamboni driver shouted, “don’t listen to her, she doesn’t work here!” So the melee got even crazier.

The rink guards couldn’t get anybody to get off the ice. Guys came out of the rink house and back onto the ice to join the fun. Half-undressed skaters were lying on the ice, pucks were flying, the lift gate was half up and the big iron pegs weren’t in to secure it. The regular zamboni driver was yelling at the kids but you couldn’t even hear what he was saying. The new zamboni driver was in some kind of hang – even though things were clearly out of hand, he recited his mantra: “don’t listen to her!!!!”

And they didn’t, nor did they listen to the rink guards. I tried to pull some of the fighters apart and off the ice. City staff are trained not to touch any park users, but I’m not staff, so I can do it. One young guy shoved me against the railing. As I had hoped, that produced a little shocked pause in the melee – guys are not supposed to shove a matronly lady. We tried to use the moment to wake people up. The rink guards got some more guys off the ice, and the other ones stopped fighting. But bless my soul if the new zamboni driver didn’t come over and start his campaign again. The regular zamboni driver tried to pull him away, but I guess the new zamboni guy was just as excited by the thrill of the battle as the skaters who remained. “Don’t listen to her….”

Three of the skaters began to taunt the rink guards, and me. They lit cigarettes and stood under the lift gate, still not secured with the pegs. Since they could see that standing under the gate got the rink guards very agitated, they skated back and forth underneath, taunting them. When I tried to pull one of them off the ice, I got another shove. I said to the regular zamboni driver: call your supervisor and tell him we need him here now! And one of the rink guards called the police.

The driver got the supervisor on his radio, talked for a couple of minutes and then said, “okay.” He said that the supervisor had ordered him and his partner to leave the building, on the grounds of health and safety. If there was a riot, the zamboni workers’ safety would be endangered.

So they left. I didn’t expect the police to show up anytime soon. What to do? The rink was chaos. Some skaters took off their skates and left, others stayed at the margins just watching, a few skated around trying to settle things down, and the three ringleaders kept the rest of the crowd pumped up. Nobody was listening to anybody; everybody was yelling.

A little group of us – the two rink guards, a few older hockey players and I – formed a plan. We walked around telling everyone who could hear us: everyone off the ice. If this rink is not cleared in five minutes, we’re shutting down the lights and closing the place for the rest of the night.

It was a gamble – would the craziest skaters rampage around and break all the windows if we did that? But there was no other way to get back the authority, and I was quite sure that if we were seen as too weak to control the crowd, we’d pay, bringing on more bad behaviour for weeks or longer.

A few skaters who wanted to play hockey rather than have a riot, skated around urging the crowd to cooperate. But most didn’t. So after about ten minutes, I got the rink keys, went into the electrical room, and shut off the power switch for the big rink lights.

That had an effect. There was silence, then shouts. “What are you doing? We want to play hockey!” I said, “We won’t turn the lights back on until everyone clears off the ice. Those three guys have to leave the building. The rest of you can get back on when those three are gone.”

The rebellion was getting tedious. Everyone filed off. The three dopes sat down on a bench and started talking big. “We’re not leaving.”

I said that the police had been called and that no lights would go back on until the three of them were gone. They made a short try at bargaining, then threatening us again, while their peanut gallery faded away. Finally the three of them left, cursing about the injustice of it all. I switched on the lights and the rink guard started to lower the gate back down.

That’s when the chain that holds up the heavy lift gate derailed. The lift gate came crashing down. The look, the sound, was worth a thousand words. The gate must have already been partway off the chain when it was lifted. If it had come off all the way when that zamboni driver was letting the skaters go back and forth underneath with no pegs securing it, somebody would most likely have been killed.

Two policemen came about an hour later, and left again right away, because there was obviously nothing wrong – just a bunch of hockey players trying to play hockey on snowy ice. The zamboni had never groomed the ice because of the riot, and the drivers didn’t return later either.

I thought that the zamboni driver who started the trouble would be reprimanded in some way, but perhaps he wasn’t. We never saw him at the Ward 18 rinks again, but we heard through the grapevine that the main lesson learned by City staff, both management and union, was that if volunteers were allowed to give direction at a rink, pandemonium would break out. Better control of community volunteers was added to the training.

Last year, Dufferin Rink was once again one of only a handful of rinks open at the end of November. On the third day the rink got so crowded that the rink coordinator called in four extra recreation staff. The staff shut down the snack bar and skate rental for a while, and turned away about sixty hockey players. The staff had been trained to seek help from their supervisors, but no one was available to come. The zamboni driver suggested that the staff should just close the rink due to the overcrowding, and he left. Some skaters in the crowd of rink users started to act up. The staff had been trained to call Corporate Security, who came very briefly and called the police. The police came, arrested one of the skaters for calling them “idiots,” and left again. Ultimately, the rink staff had to handle the crowds themselves. They did it again, without having to turn off the lights. Conclusion: in the presence of city staff who work well together in a crisis and can rely on each other, the problem is crowding, not lack of training. Reduce the citywide rink protocols and training and certification sessions to a minimum, and redirect the funds into opening the rinks earlier.

The Money Story

It takes special education to understand that following policies in a sparsely-used rink or wading pool (or a rarely-used bake oven) is more important than having lively public spaces. To administer this education, PFR has coordinators of training, who earn around $45 an hour. The position is generic – coordinators must have general knowledge of the techniques of adult education, not any specific experience in running park programs. New courses result from departmental “needs assessments.” The coordinators then “train the trainers” (community recreation program staff) to administer the training modules to the part-time staff who actually run programs. Training is about process, not content, not experience. When PFR decides that a certificate is needed to go with the training, the training coordinators have an array of commercial certificate providers to choose from.

Certification is a loose term available for use by any enterprising company, and there’s brisk competition among them. Government training contracts are a growth industry. Time and funds are diverted into these “inputs,” from “outputs” like maximum rink access in winter and interesting playground programs in summer. Last rink season, there were 190 e-mails to set up the training just for Dufferin Rink staff. Citywide, CELOS estimates that about 180 rink staff had to take mandatory training in November 2010, at a cost of about $17,000. Some of this training was for rink staff who had been working at the rinks for years – training is mandatory for everybody.

Setting up and running the training sessions took so long that there was no time left for the staff to post “opening date” signs at most of the outdoor rinks. So in many neighbourhoods, the rinks remained empty until word got around. But the compressors were running, using fuel, and the staff were there, being paid. The per capita cost of running rinks with few users is very high.

The city should begin to monitor the cost of training against its results. And so should park users. Sometimes the City gains but park users lose. For example, several windows at Sorauren Park field house were broken a few times last year. The City put in an alarm system, but only a city staff person is allowed to set the alarm, or to disengage it for community programs: the “training” in how to adjust the alarm is only available to city staff. That means that the same community people who raised the funds to renovate the Sorauren Park field house are now being charged to pay the staff to reset the alarm. The city gets to charge higher fees for each community-run program, but the community people have to dig deeper into their pockets. Meanwhile, if the kids return to break more windows, the alarm won’t help. In the next chapter, I’ll continue with the theme of inputs versus outcomes, and compare some of the costs to the benefits.

Fall Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), www.celos.ca.

Illustrations by Jane LowBeer


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