Fire Fighting in Canada This Week - May 20, 2016

Fire Fighting in Canada This Week - May 20, 2016

Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre warns about dwindling resources, tips to succession plan, and more.

Editor's blog

Editor's blog

Canadian firefighters will soon have access to training to deal with alternatively fuelled vehicles. Except, as Laura King writes, those in Ontario, where there’s no money for the program.

May 19, 2016, Toronto – First responders in all provinces except Ontario will have access to an NFPA training package to help them handle collisions and extrications involving alternatively fuelled vehicles, under a partnership with fire marshals' offices across the country.The NFPA announced the partnership May 10, a week before the Ontario government on Tuesday committed $7 billion for a climate-change plan that includes rebates for drivers of electric vehicles.The Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) confirmed Wednesday that it does not have the necessary funding to buy the licence to sign on to the NFPA program. All other provinces and territories are contributing up to $100,000 each and providing the training free of charge to firefighters and other responders."The OFMEM is currently looking at other options, including potential partnerships, in furtherance of funding for the NFPA program," said the OFMEM's Tony Pacheco, assistant deputy fire marshal and executive officer, in an email.If my understanding is correct, the partnership had been in the works for a considerable time, and, in fact, had been supported by the OFMEM and previous Ontario fire marshal Ted Wieclawek.That the country's most populous province, with, logically, the highest volume of alternatively fuelled vehicles, found $7 billion to fund its 57-page Climate Change Action Plan but failed to ante up $100,000 to teach responders to safely rescue motorists from collisions is vexing, yet typical.Firefighter training, it seems, is low on the province's priority list, the government seemingly more interested in investigations and enforcing its rules and regulations than ensuring responder safety by developing solid and affordable programming at the Ontario Fire College.Which is rather incongruous given that under provincial occupational health and safety legislation, firefighters and others are prohibited from responding to incidents for which they have not been properly trained.Already some fire departments are reviewing auto-ex responses on provincial highways given the imbalance between the cost of sending firefighters to the scene, and the reimbursement from the government.(Not to mention the state of flux at the OFMEM: as interim Fire Marshal Ross Nichols told fire chiefs in Toronto two weeks ago, frustration with government inaction on long-promised fire-service initiatives – changes to the provincial incident management system, more public education, improved standards – is mounting.)While Pacheco said dangers and common principles of electric vehicles are discussed in other training – NFPA 1001 and 1033, the fire investigator course –there is no dedicated program.Indeed, the NFPA and the council of fire marshals noted in their press release that the federal-government co-ordinated document, Electric Vehicle Technology Roadmap for Canada, highlights the necessity for training."Emergency responders need training on EVs to ensure they execute their duties in a safe and timely manner," the report says. "They need to know how to deal with high-voltage batteries and flows of electricity within vehicles in order to safely extricate victims at times of collisions."Nova Scotia Fire Marshal Harold Pothier, who is the president of the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners, said in an interview Wednesday the electric, hybrid and fuel-cell vehicle safety program should roll out in most regions at the end of the summer or in early fall.According to the release, career and volunteer firefighters, police, emergency medical services, tow truck operators and other first responders will have access to train-the-trainer and in-classroom sessions, resources, and emergency field guides that explain how to handle AFV incidents on-scene.Except those in Ontario.
May 11, 2016, Winnipeg - The Toronto Star published an editorial cartoon yesterday of a group of superheroes standing together in solidarity in front of a Fort McMurray firefighter – Superman, Batman, and other comic-book icons looking stoic and in appreciation of a humble firefighter who was covered in soot from protecting his community; the image has appeared all over social media.
May 10, Prince Albert, Sask. - Well it's been awhile since I put pen to paper, or rather fingers to keyboard. During the last few weeks I have met incredible firefighters and incredible fire service leaders from fire departments attending my seminars in Creston, Errington, and 150 Miles House, B.C., and Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.One of the many benefits of speaking at fire departments and training weekends is being surrounded by passionate firefighters. At every speaking engagement, I have great opportunities to talk about leadership, but more importantly, I get to learn from those who are leading and making a difference.I was fortunate to spend some time with Chief Rick Lasky in Creston, and to sit in and take notes during his Pride & Ownership seminar. Afterwards, being able to talk to Lasky and exchange thoughts about fire-service leadership was a great experience, and getting to know the man behind the Pride & Ownership seminar was even better.I want to write about the leadership in all of these departments, but doing so would take up too much space. Rest assured, however, the fire chiefs from these departments are truly making an impact in their communities and making great firefighters. It's a nice benefit being able to meet all of them and also see some of them successfully advance their fire services' pursuits from the part-time world to full-time, career departments.My most recent speaking engagement was the Northern HEAT (hands-on education awareness training) in Peace River, Alta. I really didn't know what to expect and actually feared that the conference would be cancelled due to the Fort McMurray fire. However, as they say, the show must go on, and indeed it did.With many firefighters and chief officers being pulled away to help at Fort McMurray or in the case of the High Level Fire Department and Chief Rodney Schmidt, an OSB plant fire that threatened to destroy the plant, attendance numbers were down. But, the spirit and passion was very high.As usual, I love walking the trade show and it was always a buzz of activity.My one-day seminar was trimmed so it could meet the changes in the schedule and was held at another hotel. Before my session was to begin, I had to go to the boy's room to get rid of some coffee. When I found the washroom the door jammed open, and feeling that it just wasn't appropriate,, I pulled the cardboard from the jam to close the door. I thought I was doing a good thing until the door closed and I noticed there was no door handle. Yup, a fire-rated door on the washroom with no door handle on the inside. It's been a long time since I actually sweated before a presentation, but believe me, I started to sweat. I was trying to figure out how to get out of the washroom. Do I yell? Do I knock on the door with the hope that someone walks by and hears me? Do I call 911? Nope, that wasn't going to happen (no reason to explain that one). So, I grabbed the door closure arm and pulled, and pulled, and pulled until I got the door open enough to stick my fingers into a gap and pull the door open. I almost cheered out loud when I got the door open! And, I didn't have to go to the washroom anymore. Go figure.Overall, the Northern HEAT conference was incredible. I was lucky to experience a common theme in Peace River, something that I heard from members of the organizing committee as I observed them on many occasions scrambling to meet the ongoing scheduling and logistics challenges as a result of manpower shortages due to firefighters being called away to other communities. I heard the words "thank-you" and "What can I do for you?" Wow, these people were run off their feet and they kept thanking others. Impressive to say the least.Then, I had a three-hour drive with Chief Schmidt, who returned to Peace River to get his luggage and to take me to High Level to give a seminar. On the way to High Level I heard about the OSB plant fire (which was still ongoing), and Schmidt asked if I minded if we could stop and check in at the command post so he could be briefed. Are you kidding me? Why would he ask that question? Because that is the type of guy Chief Schmidt is. Of course it would be OK. So, not knowing what to expect we stopped at the command post, I was witness to one well-oiled machine. I heard Chief Schmidt being briefed as saw the ICS tactical sheets – you name it, they were doing it. A great job that brought in about 70 firefighters from 12 different departments. I was able to tour the site with Chief Schmidt and the IC from the County of Grande Prairie, Deputy Chief Trevor Grant., These neighbouring fire departments responded without hesitation and they all worked together with one objective, and that was to save the plant; which they did. Every time we stopped during the tour, Grant would say “thank-you” to the firefighters; and I mean every time.I took a few pictures of some five-inch high-volume hose that was burned from the fire, which showed how fast the fire moved and how quickly the firefighters had to move to different locations.The last few weeks have been incredible as I got to meet firefighters who are truly making their communities safe. These firefighters are passionate, dedicated and professional. They are the volunteers serving their communities unselfishly and making a big difference.Keep up the great work folks because you make a difference every day. Never forget that!Les Karpluk is the retired fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. He is a graduate of the Lakeland College Bachelor of Business in Emergency Services program and Dalhousie University's Fire Administration and Fire Service Leadership programs. Follow Les on Twitter at @GenesisLes
May 10, 2016, Redwood Meadows, Alta. – I recently commented on social media about the fact that I needed to get back to blogging for Fire Fighting in Canada. My absence from the website has been way too long and it just did not make sense that I was slacking off on something I truly enjoy. Now, this is not meant as a "woe-is-me" type of return to Size-up, but a little bit of background is necessary.Last June, I suffered a serious heart attack that changed my life. I wrote a few times after that, but not as often as editor Laura King or I would have liked. I have to admit that I felt a little sorry for myself and that feeling took over. I returned to work in the new year and was ready to return full-steam to blogging; it was then that my wife and I were involved in a major rollover in our minivan. Well, if that did not knock me off of my feet again, I'm not sure what would.Fast forward to the beginning of May when I posted on social media about needing to get back to the keyboard. The drive was there, but the inspiration wasn't. How was I to return to sizing-up? Sadly, last week's wildfire in Fort McMurray was more than what I needed to get back to blogging. And boy, there was no more feeling sorry for myself after seeing my friend, Wood Buffalo Regional Fire Chief Darby Allen, on the news those first couple of nights.Allen is normally a very happy, uplifting guy to be around, but he looked beat down. I wished that I could go up north and help him out. I wondered if how Allen looked is how I looked after the 2013 floods in Alberta, which we in Redwood Meadows Emergency Services were in the middle of. I understand how and why he looked so tired.I watched as the man I know fought tears while talking about fighting "the beast" – a nickname given to the fire by Allen and adopted by media. As any fire chief should, Allen cares for his community and more so, for those who live and work there. Caring is why we do what we do – not to get the T-shirt, as Fire Fighting in Canada columnist Gord Schreiner often says. And speaking of T-shirts, right now there are hundreds of different fire-department T-shirts on the backs of firefighters from all over Alberta and beyond in Fort McMurray, and each and every one of these departments and their members make us all proud.Many people asked me last week if I wanted to be in Fort McMurray; that is a tough question. I spent time as a dispatcher helping during the 2011 Slave Lake fire and I have seen first-hand the destruction that a wildfire brings to a community.While in Slave Lake, I was fortunate enough to become friends with Fire Chief Jamie Coutts and I remember seeing him before and after getting some much needed sleep. In Fort McMurray, more command and control help recently arrived on scene; this has obviously allowed Allen to get some much-needed sleep, as the videos he has been posting show a rested man. Allen refuses to be called a hero, just like any of us, and deflects the praise to all first responders. The chief was emotional in his video address on Sunday night as he referenced the death of Emily Ryan. Emily was the daughter of Cranley Ryan, the deputy fire chief for Saprae Creek in Wood Buffalo, one of the department's volunteer halls. Emily was one of two people killed in a vehicle collision while evacuating Fort McMurray. Allen's concern for Deputy Chief Ryan was etched in his face.Sizing-up the job that Allen, first responders, residents and businesses have done during this horrendous event makes me so proud to be a firefighter, an Albertan and a Canadian. We are Alberta Strong, and everyone is behind you, Fort McMurray, Chief Allen and all first responders in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.Rob Evans is the chief fire officer for Redwood Meadows Emergency Services, 25 kilometres west of Calgary. Evans attended the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in 1989 and studied photojournalism. In 1992, he joined RMES after taking pictures of an interface fire and making prints for the department. He has his NFPA 1001 level II certification, NFPA 472 Operations and Awareness (hazmat), NFPA 1041 level I (fire service instructor), Dalhousie University Certificate in Fire Service Leadership and Certificate in Fire Service Administration and is a registered Emergency Medical Responder with the Alberta College of Paramedics. He lives in Redwood Meadows with his wife, a captain/EMT with RMES, and three children. Follow him on Twitter at @redwoodwoof
May 9, 2016, Grande Prairie, Alta. – It was remarkably fitting that as we approached the fire hall in Sexsmith, Alta., Saturday afternoon, our last stop before our departure point in Grande Prairie after three days at Northern HEAT in Peace River, the Answer the Call recruitment logo appeared, prominently placed on the east side of the building.Because that's what's happening here in Wild Rose Country: firefighters, mostly volunteers, are being dispatched to Fort McMurray and other burning areas of the province, answering the call to help fight a seemingly unstoppable blaze.Our driver, Sexsmith Capt. Chris Welsh, had the Answer the Call logo – the province-wide campaign that goes national in September through the CAFC – made into an outdoor sign for a recruitment drive a year ago and opted to keep it up, despite a waiting list to get on the department, a reminder of the role volunteers play in the community of just 2,400.The three-bay hall, a decades old white, wooden building that's being replaced next year at a site a couple of blocks away, sits on a corner by a blacksmith museum, dwarfed by the town's grain elevator out back.To say that Welsh, who drove fellow Northern HEAT speaker Peter Van Dorpe, the chief in Algonquin-Lake in the Hills, Illinois, and me to and from Peace River, are proud of their department is an understatement: all 20-plus volunteers – average age around 25 – are NFPA 1001 certified.Sexsmith is part of the County of Grande Prairie; firefighters from these parts and elsewhere in the province have shuttled back and forth to Fort Mac over the last several days; others were dispatched to High Level, where Fire Chief Rodney Schmidt needed reinforcements to battle a massive lumber-mill fire, the burning wood piles 80 feet high, 60 feet wide and a mile long and threatening to spread (the massive Norbord building saved by firefighters.)Schmidt, the president of the Peace Regional Fire Chiefs Association, arrived back at Northern HEAT Saturday afternoon, having been called home on Wednesday in the middle of flashover training, the mill fire still burning but in good hands under incident commander Trevor Grant, High Level's former deputy, now a deputy with the County of Grande Prairie.At that point Saturday, 70 firefighters from 12 departments – Grande Prairie city and county, Grande Cache, Slave Lake and others – worked the mill blaze, all brought in under the Northwest Alberta emergency resourcing agreement drawn up by area chiefs and, so far, including 27 municipalities.The agreement was born of a wildfire that threatened High Level last year, to simplify the process of requesting resources from other departments while ensuring that all municipalities remain properly staffed, costs are properly (and fairly) allocated and personnel are properly rotated.Even after the Slave Lake fire in 2011, the province has yet to develop a municipal resourcing inventory, Schmitdt explained, although the Calgary Emergency Management Agency recently set up a portal for that purpose. Peace region chiefs, however, have established their own system along with the resourcing agreement, relying on each for support, equipment and manpower, keenly aware of the need to access additional trucks and personnel during emergencies and having the necessary legalities in place to do so quickly and efficiently.The run to High Level – not far from the Northwest Territories border – from Peace River is 300 kilometres. Grande Prairie is 200 kilometres south, Slave Lake 240 kilometres. Fort McMurray is almost 700 kilometres away.The more than 100 firefighters here, from the likes of Loon River, High Prairie, Fort Vermillion, Fairview, Nampa, Wembley, Whitecourt, Peerless Trout First Nation, St. Isador Three Creeks, High Level, La Crete and Grande Prairie, think no more of hopping in their pickups – or driving aerial trucks hundreds of kilometres – to help a fellow department than they do of going to practice on Tuesday nights or spending vacation time training at Northern HEAT.They have answered the call.View a Facebook gallery of photos from Northern HEAT.
May 6, 2016, Peace River, Alta. - The Northern HEAT – (Hands-on Education Awareness Training) conference here is a wonderful event – and this year held coincidental to a horrific backdrop of the carnage of wildfire.This is my second conference in less than a week and the contrasts are stark and illuminating.Twenty-four hours ago I could see the CN Tower. This morning I smell wildfires in northern Alberta – the other side of fire fighting. We may be a country of densely populated urban centres, but Mother Nature can still deliver cruel reminders about who is really in charge.The deputy chief for the County of Grande Prairie Regional Fire Service, Dan Verdun, was to pick up some of the conference speakers at the airport yesterday. He is in Fort McMurray.The president of the Peace Regional Fire Chiefs Association, High Level Chief Rodney Schmidt, was instructing flashover training earlier this week when he got a call, jumped in his truck and headed north, lights and sirens flashing – an industrial/wildfire threatening his community.Handfuls of firefighters from departments in the region have been dispatched to Fort MacMurray or High Level, everyone being careful to ensure there are enough resources left at home to provide proper coverage in this volatile, tinder-dry province.Driving north to Peace River from Grande Prairie last evening, up Highway 2 and through the stunning river valley with Capt. Chris Welsh and firefighter Craig Rees from Sexmith, smoke from a fire in Fort St. John, B.C., blanketed the setting sun, ash in the air when we got out of the Tahoe.There may, depending how things go today, be more conference speakers here than delegates. But as Schmidt said when I emailed him to check on the conference status, the show must go on.And for good reason.Conferences and trade shows like this are the venue for the intellectual cross pollination that educates and informs the fire service.My email in box is full of notes from the likes of Jamie Coutts, chief for the Lesser Slave Lake Regional Fire Service, who, needless to say, was in Fort Mac helping out earlier this week. He has seen this movie and his institutional knowledge from his community's experience in invaluable. He has spent a lot of nights in bad hotels travelling Canada and sharing his story since 2011.Lou Wilde, assistant chief in Kelowna who fought the devastating wildfires there in 2003 and 2009, messaged me last night, asking to give Fort McMurray Chief Darby Allen his best.Coutts and Wilde know the horror that Allen is living; everyone here is praising the chief's leadership, calm, and authority.The magnitude of the blaze enveloping Fort McMurray is mindboggling. Reading story after story about the fire while waiting for the flight to Grande Prairie, a Canadian Press report put things in perspective: at 850 square kilometres – and having grown nine times in size since Wednesday – the flames have consumed an area the size of Calgary, where I happened to be sitting in the airport.This is not new for Alberta. Three years ago when I was in Peace River, a handful of chief officers met to develop a response team similar to those south of the border that deploy to fires too big for local agencies to handle. There was talk of cross training more municipal/structural firefighters and wildland teams to better understand the urban interface, and subject-matter experts (logistics, for example) who could descend on a stricken community and relieve local fire personnel so they could look after their families with clear heads, knowing others were handling the incident.What struck me, at the time, was the commitment of the group of chief officers in the room – at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night – and their knowledge that the likes of Slave Lake, or worse, was not a possibility, but a given. The institutional memory and the transfer of knowledge among those involved is deep and deliberate: most had been to Slave Lake and were keenly aware that their communities are vulnerable to the winds and climate conditions that whipped the 2011 fire into a frightening frenzy.After consecutive record wildfire seasons in western Canada, a significant portion of Alberta is burning, so early in the year – 49 separate wildfires as of Thursday night – and BMO Capital Markets says the Fort McMurray blaze alone is "by far the largest potential catastrophe loss in Canadian history."Having lived in Edmonton in the early 1990s, smoke wafting south from wildfires in the north was common, just rarely in May.But as fire-and-weather specialist David Moseley, explained in Fire Fighting in Canada in April 2015, May is the most dangerous month."There are two weather conditions that are part of the equation," Moseley wrote. "The first is crossover, when the temperature in degrees Celsius is more than the relative humidity expressed as a percentage. The second weather condition is high wind." All that, and the perfect storm of El Nino, a mild winter and little snow.And as Chief Coutts said in our Fire Fighting in Canada This Week newscast two weeks ago, watch the conditions, not the calendar.That's why conferences like this matter. As sure as Slave Lake learned from Kelowna and Fort McMurray from Slave Lake, so, too, Fort Mac will build become template for success in the face of horror somewhere else.Writing last night from 15,000 feet up, on a northbound Air Canada Bombardier Dash 8-300, it was difficult to fathom that the snowcapped Rockies to the west glistening in the evening sun, and the spectacular river valleys below, are complicit in Mother Nature's caldron of disaster.Conferences like this are the connective tissue of the Canadian fire service. This is where people learn and share and prepare for a day they hope never comes.The backdrop is smokey and real. If that lends an urgency to the learning in the next 48 hours, so much the better.But the show must go on.
May 4, 2016, Toronto – It had to have been the most humbling couple of hours interim Ontario Fire Marshal Ross Nichols has experienced since he was appointed seven months ago.First, Nichols was grilled by the province's training officers, who are meeting during the Ontario Association of Fire Chief (OAFC) conference, their frustration with delayed projects and changes palpable and clearly vocalized.Then, following a speech to fire chiefs by Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi in which the politician put the audience on notice that change is imminent – consistent standards, improved training, clear guidelines and more public education – Nichols, essentially, said . . . nothing.Having been playfully warned by outgoing OAFC president Matt Pegg to refrain from using the phrase "we're working on it" in relation to myriad anticipated changes necessary to modernize the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) and its mandate, Nichols was blunt, admitting that the speed of government is excruciatingly slow and, for him – an OPP inspector seconded to fire – exceedingly frustrating.The frustrations? Things Nichols didn't know he didn't know: that the OFMEM has 17 websites, many of them unnecessary or unworkable; that the time and energy of well-paid people put into the development of a municipal risk-assessment tool was all for naught – the OFMEM, Nichols said, should not be in the tool-making business; that there are issues with the speed of firefighter test results. "We're working on it," Nichols said. More than once.Nichols, looking pallid under the harsh lights in the conference room at the Toronto Convention Centre and in front of more than 250 chief fire officers and public educators, asked for patience and, in a lighter moment, admonished the frustrated masses to refrain from sending emails with multiple exclamation marks, capital letters and threats to carbon copy Naqvi and Deputy Minister Matthew Torrigian. Nichols will, he said, reply to emails and phone calls but, in not so many words, urged everyone to grow up and play nicely together in the sandbox.Nichols, who was likely a good cop but by his own admission is far from an exceptional orator, started well, hauling his 72-hour emergency-preparedness kit to the stage, this being Emergency Preparedness Week. There were chuckles, and even some sympathy among chief officers after the 30-minute speech, of the challenges of fixing an inherited system just as the move to NFPA standards from the Ontario curriculum occurred, and with internal personnel issues and longstanding and complex challenges such as the Northern Fire Protection Program (the NFPP website was closed for maintenance when I checked it this morning). There is, Nichols said, "a working group looking at what's needed in the north."Others were less kind afterwards, questioning the lack of a single announcement in what was undoubtedly a highly anticipated presentation – no update, for example, of the review of the provincial incident management system, recommended in the Elliot Lake Commission of Inquiry in October 2015.There was mention of the changes at the Ontario Fire College and credit given to principal Carol-Lynn Chambers for Herculean efforts to revamp the institution, but also acknowledgement of slow progress, stalled by government bureaucracy.Nichols acknowledged that there will be change as a result of the recommendations announced last week at the inquest into seven fire fatalities in Ontario in 2012 and 2013 but gave no specifics."The inquest," Nichols said, "highlighted the value of training, standards and public education." Which the OFMEM has known for years. (Earlier, Naqvi had said the government will review the Fire Protection and Prevention Act to clarify municipal obligations of fire prevention and staff training.)Nichols acknowledged conversations about First Nations fire protection, but again, no announcement. "Good meetings," he said.Having roundly apologized for the snail's pace of progress, and thoroughly accepted ownership of the need to get on with things, Nichols opened the floor to questions. Unsurprisingly, given Nichols' full disclosure that there's nothing to report, there were just two – a statement rather than a question from OAFC first vice president Steve Hernen, who acknowledged the fire marshal's forthrightness but made it clear that chiefs, too, are frustrated – and a second that involved more local issues outside the purview of the OFMEM.Hernen was elected OAFC president Wednesday afternoon.
May 2, 2016, Toronto - Thirty-three recommendations were made Friday afternoon by the five-person coroner's jury who heard over four weeks the complex and sometimes gut-wrenching details of seven fire fatalities in Ontario in 2012 and 2013.Among the recommendations are consultation about mandatory sprinklers in new construction; more – and better – public education and, as expected, targeted to specific groups; and consideration by municipalities and fire departments of re-allocating money to prevention and inspections, from suppression.Training, too, is at the crux of the lengthy list of recommendations, given the lack of mandatory course requirements for fire dispatchers in Ontario, a fact that was widely reported by rather gobsmacked reporters covering the inquest, to a rather naive public.Indeed, the jury recommends that the province institute mandatory certification for inspectors, public educators and communicators – finger pointed directly at the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. It is rather flummoxing that the people, as the jury said, "whose primary job function it is to perform fire inspections, public education and/or communication" in Ontario require no standardized, mandatory certification. That said, of course, neither do firefighters.The jury also calls for collaboration between police and fire on training for fire responses, and municipal websites and literature to explain levels of service, response times, and coverage – full-time, part-time or volunteer.What became overwhelmingly clear to the jury during the inquest into separate fires in Whitby and East Gwillimbury in which three teens and four members of one family perished, was the lack of public understanding of the consequences of lightweight construction, the complexity of a fire-department response from the 911 call to water on the fire, and the need to be out of a burning structure before the trucks arrive.While witnesses testified that they understood their municipalities' levels of service, it became clear during the inquest that few people outside the fire service recognize the rescues on Chicago Fire are fiction, and that smoke kills people who fail to properly protect themselves with alarms and a well-practiced escape plan.Re-allocating money to public education from suppression, as the jury recommends municipalities and fire departments consider doing, is about as likely to happen as the end of 24-hour shifts.I know this because, as I sit in the foyer outside the OAFC trade show looking at billions of dollars worth of fire equipment – trucks, hoses, thermal imagers, PPE with integrated TICs – it occurs to me (actually, it was pointed out by an observant deputy chief) that of the hundreds of booths at the show, few, if any, are dedicated to prevention and public education; it's about the business of suppression.But here's what no one's saying out loud: Had Benjamin Twiddy, 19, Marilee Towie, 17, and Holly Harrison, 18, thrown the burning towel that started the fire in the second-storey Whitby apartment into the sink rather than down the stairway, or sheltered in a room with a closed door, and had the Dunsmuir family had a working, main-floor smoke alarm, the outcome may have been different.People are responsible for their own well-being and survival. Danielle Migueis, the 911 call-taker who answered Robert Dunsmuir's cell phone call from his parents burning East Gwillimbury home said although she wasn't required to do so, she used common sense, called back after the line was disconnected, and tried to help the family to find a way out of the house.Sadly, common sense can't be legislated.
April 19, 2016, Toronto – There is consensus among those who have testified at the inquest into seven fire fatalities – three in Whitby, four in East Gwillimbury – that responders did everything by the book but couldn't save the three teenagers and the four members of Dunsmuir family who perished in the separate blazes in 2012 and 2013.Maybe the book needs to be rewritten.Public education – that first line of defence that successive Ontario fire marshals have preached – came up short; other than calling 911, neither the teens nor the Dunsmuirs were adequately armed with the necessary know how to give themselves a chance of survival, and in the latter incident – a fire that started in the main-floor laundry room – there was no smoke alarm.A landlord shirked his duties – and the second line of defence collapsed in the Whitby case when an inspector failed to thoroughly ensure necessary fire-protection measures were in place.Response times were discussed at various points in the three weeks since the inquest started on March 29 – eight minutes for Whitby Fire to arrive on scene despite the hall being 260 metres down the street, and 12 minutes for East Gwillimbury's volunteer firefighters to reach 72 Howard Ave. in the community of Sharon, both well within the norm.Career versus volunteer? Not an issue, despite some gentle pokes by Mark Train, a Mississauga firefighter who represents the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (but is not a lawyer), at the East Gwillimbury firefighters who testified last week – mainly about fire-ground staffing and the fact that the incident commander also drove the first-in engine.Train tried in vain on Monday to poke deeper, this time at East Gwillimbury Chief Phil Dawson on the stand, but lawyer John Saunders objected to questions about budgets and levels of service as irrelevant to the inquest, and coroner Dr. David Evans agreed.Training? More of it, and standardized, for 911 call takers and fire dispatchers, witnesses told coroner's counsel Frank Giordano; and maybe cross training for police who might be the first to arrive at a working fire – particularly about fire behaviour and understanding what happens when doors to a burning structure are breached. Indeed, East Gwillimbury and York Regional Police are already doing just that.Whitby Chief David Speed, in his April 7 statement to the five-member jury – which will make non-binding recommendations when the inquest wraps up, likely next week – threw political caution to the wind, calling for mandatory sprinklers in all new residential construction.East Gwillimbury Fire Chief Phil Dawson proposed a more conservative approach on Monday – focusing on education and early detection, asking that the jury consider recommending fire inspections whenever ownership of a home or tenants change, possibly through municipal bylaws."Sprinklers are a good idea but they're reactive," Dawson said. Indeed, he added, all firefighters – even those in suppression – should be involved in the first two lines of defence.Both fire chiefs urged the jury to consider broader public education, to make recommendations that focus on reaching particular demographics and with strong messaging.Earlier Monday, the Dunsmuir housekeeper of 12 years, Valerie Schmidt, testified that there was no smoke alarm on the main floor of the home and only one on the second storey, in the hallway outside the bedrooms. (There was an additional alarm in the basement but Schmidt wasn't aware.)The fire on March 29, 2013, started in the laundry room, in a plugged vent to the outside, which, during renovations, had been reconfigured to go through the floor and along the basement ceiling, to the outside.The purpose of questions by coroner's counsel about an oily substance in the laundry room area – linseed oil, perhaps – which Schmidt said she was unaware of, were not explained, the details likely to come later this week from representatives of the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management who investigated the incident.Friday, the jury heard from Dunsmuir neighbour John Hems, who said he heard screaming from the home but no smoke alarms."The whole street," Hems said, "replaced their smoke alarms right after the fire."Public education of the most tragic kind.
April 15, 2016, Toronto – Miscommunication during a 911 call placed by 19-year-old Robert Dunsmuir from his parents' burning home in East Gwillimbury on March 29, 2013, resulted in the fire-department dispatcher prematurely terminating the call.As disturbing as that miscommunication might be, it had no impact on the outcome.Hearing the young man's final words and his last breath on the 911 tape played for a coroner's jury on Thursday was gut wrenching. But the miscommunication about the nature of the call once it was transferred to the Richmond Hill Fire & Emergency Services dispatcher from a 911 call taker turned out to be moot.The five-person coroner's jury heard last week in testimony from representatives of Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) – several are in court daily as observers – that without sprinklers, occupants have fewer than four minutes to escape a burning building before they succumb to smoke inhalation. Although the communication mix up may not have affected the outcome, training for 911 call takers about fire procedures, and mandatory training for fire dispatchers, is likely to be among the jury's recommendations.York Regional Police 911 call taker Danielle Migueis answered Dunsmuir's cell-phone call at 5:29:35 a.m. Dunsmuir, his parents and his brother were trapped in the master bedroom of the burning two-storey home in the community of Sharon in East Gwillimbury. An investigation by the OFMEM determined that the fire originated in a plugged dryer vent and that the main floor smoke alarm was faulty."There's a fire at 72 Howard Ave.," Dunsmuir tells Migueis. The statement is clear on the digital audio recording, but, it was noted for the jury, background noise made it difficult to hear."Sorry, what address?""72 Howard Avenue, in Sharon.""What's going on there?" Migueis asks."It's a fire. I just woke up in the middle of the night and can't see," Dunsmuir says, frantic and disoriented.Migueis transfers the call to the Richmond Hill Fire dispatcher, but stays on the line. (Richmond Hill dispatches for East Gwillimbury and three other communities)."Don't hang up, OK," Migueis says to Dunsmuir, calm and rational even though the call was the first of the sort she had experienced (911 call takers require no training to help people trapped in burning buildings). Of the more than 233,600 emergency calls a year in York region, structure fires with people trapped are extremely rare and are passed over to fire dispatch, the jury was told.Richmond Hill Fire picks up the call. "Fire and emergency for what town?""Fire, he's at 72 Howard Avenue," Migueis tells the dispatcher."I can't breathe," Dunsmuir says to the fire dispatcher. "I have asthma.""We're on our way," the fire dispatcher says."OK. So are we," Migueis says, indicating that police are en route, and at 5:30 a.m. the fire dispatcher hangs up, presumably believing he is sending trucks to a medical call, having heard Dunsmuir say only that he was asthmatic and having difficulty breathing."Sir. Hello? Hello?" Migueis says, still on the line and trying to communicate with Dunsmuir but getting no response.Migueis – who was named York Regional Police call taker of the year in 2015 – calls back but gets no answer. She tries again."Hi," Dunsmuir says."Did you get out of the house?" Migueis asks. "OK, you've got to get out of the house.""I don't know how," Dunsmuir says. "We are trapped in the upper floor."You don't know how?""No, we can't see and it's pitch black and everything."Migueis asks how many people are in the house. "The four of us . . . and the dog," Dunsmuir says."I'm choking. I have asthma . . . I can't breathe. I can't breathe.""Where are your parents?" Migueis asks."With us," Dunsmuir says. "Can you please . . . ""Can you get to the door?""No.""Hello? Sir? Can you guys get out the window? Sir? Hello?"The line goes dead. Migueis calls again. No one picks up."It's not our obligation to call back if it's a fire call," Migueis told coroner's counsel Frank Giordano, explaining that once a call is transferred to fire or EMS it's the purview of the other agency. Calling back was just common sense, Migueis said;she "just wanted them to get out."Asked by Giordano to explain what happened when the phone went dead the first time, Migueis said, "I do believe the fire call taker may have hung up," which is standard procedure for a medical call.Subsequent 911 calls from neighbours alerted dispatch to the fire, and according to the OFMEM investigation report, the first truck arrived in 12 minutes from the East Gwillimbury volunteer department.Migueis was the only witness to testify Thursday. Lawyers for other parties with standing at the inquest had no questions for Migueis, who gave impeccably clear and deliberate testimony. Migueis was cross examined only by York Regional Police lawyer Jason Fraser, who outlined for the jury the hundreds of hours of training, testing and re-testing Migueis has completed and that are required, by law, for 911 call takers.There are no similar adequacy regulations for fire dispatchers in Ontario, and no mandatory training provided through the OFMEM, although it has the authority to teach NFPA 1061, Professional Qualifications for Public Safety Telecommunications Personnel; the standard was developed with input from an Ontario group of communicators, and communicators have pushed for years for such training.The inquest adjourned at mid-day Thursday, having no witnesses lined up to testify. The Richmond Hill Fire dispatcher was not on the original witness list distributed by coroner's counsel, lawyers having reached an agreed statement of facts about when, how and by what means the Dunsmuirs died, and the dispatcher's testimony was deemed unnecessary. The frenzy of activity in the courtroom yesterday afternoon may have indicated that has changed.Six witnesses are to testify today – neighbours, police and firefighters.
April 12, 2016, Toronto – The coroner's inquest into seven fire fatalities that started March 29 and has focused thus far on the deaths of three teenagers in a Whitby apartment turns this week to the 2013 blaze that killed Kevin and Jennifer Dunsmuir and two of their sons. The proceedings, to this point, have been curious.To summarize, Whitby Fire Chief David Speed, bizarrely, testified from notes provided by a former fire prevention inspector that landlord Andrew Strzelec had complied with an order to install fire-resistant drywall in a stairway – the apartment's only exit. There are no notes to that effect: Speed based his testimony on a conversation with the inspector; the inspector based his assumption of compliance on a conversation with the landlord. No one checked to ensure that the ordered renovations had, in fact, been completed, and it became clear after the fire that the drywall – necessary to create a proper fire separation between the upstairs and main-floor apartments – had never been installed.The fire inspector, Wayne Bray, has not been called as a witness and no one I've spoken with seems to know why. Bray is not among the fire inspectors listed on the town's website. Coroner's counsel Frank Giordano has not yet replied to an email asking for an explanation.The landlord's testimony was inconsistent, according to reports, and, in fact, photos of the building show that Strzelec, sometime after receiving approval for the ordered renovations, converted the house back into an illegal three-unit dwelling.Yesterday, an experienced fire-protection engineer with the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) testified that the Whitby Fire Department misinterpreted the fire code and the small apartment should never have been approved as compliant – a rather damning statement from a senior staffer with the organization that helps fire departments interpret and understand the code.Even more puzzling, perhaps, to the five-person jury, is the fact that the province requires no specific training for fire inspectors who, as Chief Speed testified last week, are considered assistants to the fire marshal; NFPA 1031 Levels 1 and 2 are recommended but not mandatory. Whitby, however, now requires its inspectors to have a three-year fire-protection diploma from a community college, the chief said.There is, as Speed testified, no regulatory body for fire inspectors.What's bugging me, though, is a statement Chief Speed made under questioning by coroner's counsel, about alternate means of egress, and whether the windows in the apartment were the type that would allow for escape if the exit – the stairway – was blocked."We didn't even look at that," said Speed who, as chief fire prevention officer, was Bray's supervisor, referring to the windows."Because," he said, "it met code."In other words, the single, (un)renovated stairway exit was sufficient and the only escape route required.Not so, according to OFMEM fire-protection engineer Christine Mak, who testified this week that the apartment was, in fact, required to have a second exit, because the windows were too small to allow for escape.The testimony is damning – to the department, the province, the system.And we're only part way through.
April 8, 2016, Toronto – It was apparent yesterday afternoon at the inquest into three fire fatalities in Whitby in 2012 that to be a chief in this province, it's necessary to have skin as thick as the tires on an aerial truck.Whitby Fire Chief David Speed suppressed innuendo, accusations and inaccuracies lobbed by lawyers for the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management and the families of the three deceased teens – Benjamin Twiddy, 19, Marilee Towie, 17, and Holly Harrison, 18 – during a full day of testimony in a coroner's court on Thursday.Politics clearly at play, the lawyer for the OFMEM, Claudia Brabazon, tried to trip up Chief Speed, to discredit his evidence – although it's not quite clear why.The details and nuances are complex. Chief Speed was, in part, testifying from notes made by a Whitby fire inspector. The inspector told Speed – before he became chief, back when he headed the fire-prevention division – but did not write down the fact that the owner of the apartment in which the teens died had earlier complied with a fire-code inspection order, and the required work had been completed.After the fire on April 29, 2012, it became clear that fireproof drywall had never been installed in the unit's stairwell as specified in the order, and the combustible wood panelling ignited along with carpet and wallpaper, blocking the teens' only way out. The three friends were found huddled under a living-room window, trying to shield themselves from the blaze that started when a towel caught fire and was tossed into the stairwell.Given that the inspector, Wayne Bray who, strangely, has not been called as a witness, had made thorough notes about every other aspect of the case but none detailing his conversation with the landlord about the drywall, perhaps Mr. Bray and the landlord had not, in fact, discussed that issue, the lawyer said."Isn't it possible," Brabazon asked, "that the conversation never took place?""No," Chief Speed replied, without hesitation. "Mr. Bray told me that it took place and I believe him."Still, it's curious that the chief, who kept his composure even after several hours on the stand and provided detailed evidence, testified from another's notes, hence, perhaps, the hard line by the lawyers. When asked, other parties involved with the inquest and some of their lawyers couldn't explain Mr. Bray's absence or Chief Speed's use of the inspector's notes.Later, the OFM lawyer asked if the inspector should have taken the landlord's word given his blatant disregard for fire-code compliance before he was earlier fined for another violation."In the beginning [the landlord] was difficult but after he was charged he started to comply," Speed said. "I have a lot of trust in the inspectors . . . "As one courtroom spectator put it, no good deed goes unpunished – in this case, the inspector having given the landlord the benefit of the doubt. Clearly, it was noted, it's crucial to go by the book regardless of political pressure to relax the rules for tax-paying property owners – do what's right, not what's popular, and, as is well known from the Elliot Lake Commission of Inquiry and other proceedings in Ontario, take precise, detailed notes, always.The lawyer for the Town of Whitby clarified with Chief Speed that the municipality treats everyone equally – that, for example, landlords with a single conviction are not red flagged, targeted or profiled, as the OFM lawyer had suggested might have been appropriate in this case given some of the conditions in the apartment.Those conditions, Chief Speed said – low ceilings, no sprinklers, extinguishers or fire escape (none of which is required) – are normal and are found in hundreds of similar apartments across the province.Earlier, Chief Speed had provided jurors with his recommendations to consider: mandatory training for fire inspectors – who in Ontario are considered assistants to the fire marshal but for whom there is no required standardized provincial training; better public education; and – of course – sprinklers."In this case," Speed said, "and in about 80 other fires every year in Ontario, the three lines of defence did not work."Sprinklers, Speed said, would likely have saved the lives of the teens, whose screams, and subsequent silence, were heard on the 911 tape played in the courtroom last week."Firefighters followed all practices and policies," Speed said. "Yet I struggle to find a recommendation to improve this, except this one; I urge the jury to recommend the installation of sprinklers in all new residential construction."Given that earlier witnesses testified to a "textbook" response that took more than four minutes even though the fire hall was fewer than 300 metres down the street, and, as Speed told the inquest, Whitby has 104 suppression firefighters but just six fire-prevention officers, the recommendation is reasonable.Thick skin indeed.
A few years ago I received a mass email from our regional Alberta Emergency Management Agency field officer asking if our community, the Lesser Slave Lake Region, was interested in participating in a province-wide emergency management exercise. After four years of constant rebuilding, repairing and reimagining our emergency services after the 2011 wildfire decimated our region, I thought: “Yes, we absolutely have to do this.” (I should have maybe asked around before sending a positive response . . .)
Last summer, Luanne Donahoe was worried about her son, Josh. The 17-year-old’s father, a firefighter, died in the line of duty when Josh was nine, and he has had a rough time dealing with his absence.
The snow is gone. Spring is here. The wash bucket moves from inside the fire station to outside on the apron. That shiny fire truck, which for months has known only road salt, brine and sand, will now be washed, waxed and left to dry in the sunshine. The following are tips and tricks to keep in mind when spring cleaning the rigs.
In the 1990s, rural farm-oriented communities began to see construction of large-scale pig barns. Today, these barns often house thousands of animals, and, when full, are all worth millions of dollars.
Anyone who works in a unionized fire department has, at some time, been confronted with the one word that sets up a roadblock to any succession program: seniority.
Evacuee response to a fire can appear random and beyond understanding. Until relatively recently, fire engineers, safety managers and designers typically assumed that evacuee response would be dominated by panic – people being insensitive to the actual incident conditions they face, causing them to bolt for an exit or freeze to the spot.
Over the winter, there were more large-profile barn fires in the news than I can recall in recent memory. At one point it was difficult to keep track of them all.
There’s one in every station – the ticking-time-bomb firefighter whose demeanour slips Jekyll-and-Hyde-like between everyone’s best friend and look-at-him-sideways and he’ll snap.
I was skeptical, as is my nature. But having experienced a five-day train-the-trainer course and taught the eight-hour Road to Mental Readiness leadership program, my cynicism has dissipated.
Purchasing the latest technology is not always the right choice for a fire department. Brad Harvey, a member of Scott Safety's business intelligence team, suggests three keys to success when it comes to understanding technology applications in fire services: stay grounded, engage in innovation and leverage data.Harvey discussed what's involved in those measures during Fire Fighting in Canada's webinar Exploring innovation, held on March 24.Toronto Deputy Chief Darrell Reid, the webinar's second speaker, shared details about his department's recent technology advancements, including the Toronto Radio Infrastructure Project – a radio system designed for the city's fire, police and EMS services – and performance and analytics technologies such as DarkHorse Analytics and LiveMUM move-up module."We are a department that maybe hasn't always embraced technology as quickly as we might have," Reid said, "but in the past few years there has been a real step forward in terms of getting the right people into important positions who have that knowledge in terms of analytics, business intelligence, how to make business cases that are really developed and derived from evidence."Missed the webinar? Register and watch it for free now!
March 2016 - Jan. 11 started much the same as any other Monday morning. The crew members on duty at the Swift Current Fire Department in Saskatchewan completed their morning checks and had prepared for some fire inspections.
Good fire-service leaders know the benefits of a solid and comprehensive strategic plan; it provides the opportunity to analyze the current state, identifies what risks or threats may exist or lie beyond the horizon, can help highlight future opportunities and pitfalls, and can provide the organization with vision, goals, and objectives to pursue in a world of continuous improvement.
During the interview process to find my replacement as fire chief for the City of Waterloo, Ont., I was struck by a comment made by one of the candidates. In response to a question about leading outside of the box, the candidate said, “Before you can think outside of the box, you need to know what’s inside of the box.”
As a chief officer, I expect my firefighters to maintain a level of fitness and competence to enable them to safely and effectively perform their duties. In return, I must keep myself fit in order to be at my best for the people I guide, inspire and serve. Are you a fit leader?
After retiring as fire chief for the City of Waterloo, Ont., I developed Fire Officer III and IV programs for the Ontario Fire College, and have the pleasure of teaching the programs at the college and to Lakeland Emergency Training Centre, in Vermilion, Alta. I am also finalizing plans to teach in Nova Scotia.
Look at any great and successful organization and you will find behind it a great team. The fire service has always been good at developing solid teams (brotherhood) but we shouldn’t take this for granted.
The demands on volunteer or paid-on-call firefighters just seem to keep ratcheting upwards. The results are better-trained, highly competent firefighters who are able to respond to myriad types of emergencies. If there is a downside to this change, it’s the increased demand on members’ time and the consequent effect on recruitment and retention.
In my past few columns I have focused on career development and the importance of post-secondary education for aspiring and current senior officers.
A leader knows that it’s the people – the firefighters in all branches of a department – who make a fire service creative, adaptable and responsive in saving lives, preventing injuries and reducing property damage. Three lines of defence – public education, prevention and emergency response – against the ravages of fire are the raison d’etre for any fire service.
Defining the steps necessary to get a chief’s position is more of an art than an exact science and depends greatly on your background, fire-service tenure and ultimate career goals.
While instructing a fire officer program at the Ontario Fire College, I noticed a shift occurring in the field of leadership.
There is a struggle these days at the top level of fire-service management. The struggle is internal; chiefs must decide whether to concentrate on public safety or support the political/fiscal war on spending. I hear rumblings that the cost of emergency services is increasing too fast. We need to cut costs; taxpayers can not afford to continue to pay high prices for fire protection.I also hear the concerns from the public when a toddler dies in a house fire. Such was the case in January 2014 when a two-year-old died in a house fire in Langley, B.C., Shortly after a fire in May of 2015, Fire Chief Rick Ennis, chair of the Missouri Fire Sprinkler Coalition, asked on social media, “Why are we not giving the [recent] fire death of a two year old in a new home the attention it deserves?”I personally and professionally know the pressures and stresses of addressing the affordability of establishing and maintaining a fire service. I also know the importance of public fire safety and the stress of dealing with a fire death – especially one that could have been prevented. Why is it then that we in the fire service toggle so easily between concerns about public safety and those about affordability? Why do we not give potentially preventable fire deaths and injuries the attention they deserve, yet quickly turn to fiscal concerns, attempting to cut costs by reducing services to the public that funds us in the first place to protect them? Why is there a leadership gap or disconnect between affordability and public safety? Are we fire-service/public-safety leaders or are we fire-service treasurers? I’m all for keeping taxation as low as possible; however, I also believe that you get only what you pay for. I must temper that sentiment with the fact that my first priority as a fire-service leader is public safety. How can we give potentially preventable fire deaths the attention they deserve and attempt to cut costs? Can we bridge the gap?Fire Chief Cynthia Ross Tustin of the Township of Essa Fire Department in suburban Ontario has the taken up the challenge on this issue. She is leading the charge on the installation of home fire sprinklers and is adamant that having more homes outfitted with sprinklers is the way forward. She is steadfast in stating that residential sprinklers would not only help prevent fire deaths and injuries, but would also reduce firefighter cancer rates and health risks to homeowners.Saving lives, preventing injuries and lowering property loss through the installation of residential sprinklers may be the way to bridge the gap between enhancing public safety and reducing costs to municipalities. Just as a combination of education and legislation on the topics of seatbelts, smoking and drinking and driving has saved lives, the same could be true for home fire sprinklers.We need to implement massive home-sprinkler campaigns, coupled with strong municipal/provincial legislation mandating the installation of sprinklers in newly constructed homes.The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs also supports mandated sprinklers. According to the OAFC, 220 jurisdictions across North America already have requirements in place for residential sprinkler systems.Firefighters, officers and especially chief officers need to tackle the concerns about affordability of fire services by emphasising public safety through the installation of home fire sprinklers. We can’t keep trying to cut costs by reducing service levels through successive budget cuts. We can’t keep going to the store with $10 expecting to buy $20 worth of groceries, and then expect to eat healthy.Not only will home fire sprinklers save lives and prevent injuries to homeowners and firefighters, they will save money for home owners through lower insurance premiums when combined with public fire safety education and working smoke alarms. This will address affordability. As fire service leaders we have a mandate to be the leaders on public fire and life safety all the while being mindful of fiscal concerns. We need to eliminate the leadership gap between affordability and public safety through a pan-Canadian home sprinkler campaign. We need to get off our duffs, take encouragement from Chief Ross Tustin and be local champions in our communities on this issue. We need to foster stronger partnerships with our colleagues in the sprinkler, construction and insurance industries to save lives, prevent injuries, reduce property loss and be affordable at the same time. Just as most of us have embraced smart phones, eco/green technology in our fire trucks, and the use of tablets in our pumpers, it is time to install fire sprinklers in our homes; we can’t afford not to. You lead as you are.Doug Tennant is the fire chief in Deep River, Ont. Contact Doug at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
A few months ago I accepted the position of fire chief in the Town of Golden, B.C. As I learn and grow into my new role, I am reminded of important facets of leading a diverse group of people who make up a fire department.Over time I’m becoming more familiar with the community, the department and some prominent local issues; but getting to know the members of the department – those who make the organization tick – is of paramount importance. Of course I’m interested in the hard information such as strengths, weaknesses, qualifications and the like, but I also want to know members’ aspirations, their histories, what troubles them and much more. I want to know them like, well, family. One of our members lost his father to a medical emergency a few weeks after I started. I had not met the father, but I, along with a number of our members, attended the service. Why? So we could support our colleague when he likely needed it most. As I work with our officers, I gradually learn their leadership styles, their insights about the department, its way of operating, its challenges and its strengths. My relationships with the officers are much more than operational; they’re personal too. I enjoy hearing anecdotes about previous calls and meeting the partners who support our members; these are vital ways to become part of the fire family. A rapport is also developed with my supervisor as we get to know each other’s work styles and priorities. Elected officials have significant impacts on many aspects of a fire department, from budget considerations to capital projects, levels of service and much more. Those relationships are works in progress and may need to start anew after an election season. A cardinal rule with CAOs and councils is that they don’t like surprises; approach them with solutions rather than problems. Building relationships also extends beyond the municipality to leaders of other emergency organizations, industry representatives and other governmental and regulatory folks. It will take some time to acquaint myself with everyone, but it will be time well-invested.Getting to know the community here is not only a treat, it’s essential too. There is a ton to learn about historical and current issues as they relate to the fire department. I need to gauge whether we’re delivering the right services at the appropriate levels. Are there risks that are not being addressed? Is there public appetite for other changes in our organization? The fire department should, in my view, be part of the social fabric of the community, which means it is critical for the fire chief to be immersed in the community outside of the provision of emergency services. We are a small enough community and fire department that I may occasionally have to operate our trucks or other equipment. I must be familiar with the department’s engines, quint, rescue truck and all other equipment. Because it is a small department, I would not expect my members to perform any task that I couldn’t. Another bonus of being in a smaller centre is engaging with citizens while promoting fire prevention; that might mean presenting to a class in one of our schools or conducting fire- and life-safety inspections in our businesses and other public buildings. Relationships are built in the community, too, as we educate building owners as to why compliance is so vital in order to reduce harm to occupants and minimize property loss. It was bittersweet leaving the community and department in which I had become an integral member, but it is an absolute thrill to create new connections and take on the challenge of leading and managing a new department. I will spend a lot of time observing and learning over the next little while. I will also be an agent of change in some respects. There will be procedures, equipment and philosophies that remain, and others that will change. Change for change’s sake is unwise; so is holding on to current practices simply because we’ve always done it that way. A move to a new department brings into focus many of the strengths and qualities that are needed for day-to-day and long-term leadership of a fire department. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the importance of leadership. Effective leaders, whether a day or a decade into their positions, continually build and strengthen relationships, are fully engaged in their organizations and their communities and are constantly striving to improve themselves.Dave Balding joined the fire service in 1985 and is now fire chief in Golden, B.C. Contact Dave at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @FireChiefDaveB
When I was approached to write this column, I thought it would be a great opportunity to discuss my journey to a deputy-chief position, the challenges I faced in attaining the position and those I have experienced in my new role. I hope my columns provide some insight into how a chief officer experiences the transition from a front-line responder to an administrative role.
Fire departments across the country rely on provincial or territorial statistics and provincial or territorial, national or international solutions. The more people a community has, the more incidents will occur. If the No. 1 problem in your province is cooking fires, it is likely more reflective of what goes on in major cities than in remote or rural communities.
Does your fire department’s public-education program work? If you think it does, can you prove it?
There are differences among public education, public information and public relations.  But the differences are often blurred, so before we can understand public education, we need to look at the definitions of all three.
March 2016 - Public educator Tanya Bettridge has been to several seminars for her job over the years, but the latest one was different.
February 2016 - A shift is happening in the required skill sets of fire-service personnel: firefighters need to be more high-tech than ever, and non-suppression personnel are moving up the ranks. The fire-breathing dragon of the past is long gone, replaced by new challenges such as lightweight construction and alternative energy sources.
It’s that time of year again, when fire departments should start thinking about wildland fire awareness and Wildfire Community Preparedness Day.I know it seems odd that a discussion about wildland fire should begin in the dead of the Canadian winter, but very quickly winter turns to spring, and spring to summer, and – if the proper conditions develop – in many places across Canada that means wildland fire season.According to Natural Resources Canada, wildland fire consumes an average of 2.3 million hectares per year and causes millions of dollars in damage, not just to the forestry industry but also to residential and municipal properties. Wildfire responds quickly to fuels found in the forest, grasslands or backyards, and without proper mitigation and landscape management it will burn homes and any other vulnerable structures in its path.Kelly Johnston, the executive director of Partners in Protection, said unless Canadian communities take action, the threat of wildfires will only become worse.“Wildfires have always been a natural process in Canada’s forests,” Johnston said. “However, as we experienced in 2015, a changing climate, increasing large fire activity and increasing development trends create a serious threat throughout Canada – putting neighbourhoods, communities and firefighter safety at risk every year.”Wildfire is a part of natural ecosystems, however, interface situations can occur in all but the most heavy urban environments. It is important that fire services and their communities recognize that wildfire isn’t just limited to municipalities with towns built within or nearby heavy or dense forests. Wildland interface exists in many more settings such as urban forests, municipal green spaces, farms and recreational areas such as cottage or camp communities. Any place where trees, tall grasses, crops or natural vegetation grow and shed annually should be considered as fuel load that when coupled with an ignition source from human or natural activity all contribute to a wildfire risk.Wildfire management has traditionally been the purview of provincial ministries that work with Natural Resources Canada and co-ordinate with the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers. However, there is a growing expectation that municipal structural firefighters will be trained and prepared to respond to and extinguish wildland fires that may or may not impact homes and structures that belong to local taxpayers. There is a great opportunity here for local fire services to take the lead by participating in the second annual national Wildfire Community Preparedness Day on May 7. The national Wildfire Community Preparedness Day program centres around the promotion of wildfire community protection awareness activities. This day is an excellent public-education opportunity for fire services to help community members recognize the hazards of wildfire; suggest ways they can mitigate or prevent wildfire from impacting their community; and teach them ways to minimize any damage done. Partners in Protection Association (the non-profit organization behind FireSmart Canada), in partnership and support from the NFPA, the Co-operators Insurance Group, the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and several provincial natural resources ministries have pooled together $23,000 to award communities that organize Wildfire Community Preparedness Day activities.Beginning Jan. 25 through to March 12, anyone 19 years or older can apply for an award to conduct wildfire-preparedness activities or events. There will be a total of 20 nationally awarded and 14 provincially awarded $500 prizes available. Acceptable projects should focus on reducing the risk of wildfire in a community through education, hazard reduction or advanced-preparedness activities. Projects may include working with neighbours to clear leaves and other combustible debris from gutters of homes and buildings, raking leaves and combustible debris from under decks, moving woodpiles away from buildings, using a chipper service to dispose of slash or winterkill, or distributing wildfire-safety information. Groups of all sorts and individuals of all ages are encouraged to participate.For those communities that may still have snow on the ground on May 7, it is the perfect chance to engage community members in pre-planning and public-education sessions for activities to take place when the snow is gone.To learn more about Wildlife Community Preparedness Day in Canada and how to apply for funding, please visit www.firesmartcanada.ca, or feel free to contact me.Shayne Mintz is the Canadian Regional Director for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Contact him at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , and follow him on Twitter at @ShayneMintz
As public educators we teach, but we are always learning from our audiences. To get our messages across, we need to understand our audiences and determine the best ways to reach them.
A partnership between Regina Fire & Protective Services and a family-advocacy agency has helped to reduce the number of child-caused fires in the city.
My department’s philosophy for making everyone a public educator is to create partnerships within our own Brampton Fire and Emergency Services.
You know the kid: he or she is practically a woven pattern around mom’s leg, peaking out then darting back for cover. When asked a question or prompted to (heaven forbid) touch something, the chin lowers to the chest and the body twists even closer to parental flesh, as if dad will risk his life to protect against . . . a firefighter helmet.
You’re the fire chief – what can you tell me about residential fire sprinklers? Did you know the NFPA can help?
Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek outlined to fire chiefs on Tuesday the details of proposed changes to the Ontario Fire Code that focus on fire prevention in homes for seniors and some other vulnerable Ontarians. See story below. Photo by Laura King
Training is a vast subject and is, of course, vitally important to the success and safety of a fire service. I often say that without on-going training a firefighter is just another civilian.
Victory loves preparation. This statement reflects what training officers should aim for on practice nights.
Firefighters should be aware of situations that lead to rapid fire development (RFD) – occurrences such as flashovers, backdrafts and smoke explosions – and how to take aggressive action to protect themselves. In the March issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, we examined why better gear and new construction materials expose firefighters to RFD today more than ever before.
March 2016 - Say the words Lac-Megantic and a flood of images, feelings and thoughts come quickly to mind. The July 2013 train derailment and explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Que., was a watershed event in Canada, particularly as it relates to the transportation of flammable liquids and the regulations, policies and actions that producers, shippers and consignors must now consider.
As I got out of my truck in the Walmart parking lot, I heard a voice behind me say, “Hey buddy, any change?” I don’t remember the fellow saying, “Do you have any change?” and so as I went about my shopping, I thought about the way the question was phrased and applied it to my role as a training officer.
Rapid fire development (RFD) is a concern that all firefighters face whether they are undertaking engine-company or truck-company functions. RFD refers to occurrences such as flashover, backdrafts and smoke explosions, and can take place at any structure, at any time of day, anywhere in the country.
The transitional fire attack is a relatively new tactic by name, but some of its practices have been around for many years. This tactic gained traction in the last two years as a result of the studies completed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL) in New York and Chicago.
It’s a new year and a new batch of recruits. I have the pleasure of instructing a lot of very able and smart men and women. But, to be honest with you, there will be a few recruits this year who will simply be head and shoulders above everyone else; they don’t just do things, they do them incredibly well.
I’m an old-school gearhead and I take pride in my tools. My standard wrenches are hung in precise order from 1/4 inch up to 1 1/4.
Advancing a preconnect hand line into a structure is a common offensive attack to get water to and on the fire quickly. Another option for engine companies is the blitz attack.
The summer’s wildfire season in British Columbia’s Southern Interior was unprecedented: multiple fires started in our drought-ravaged area and kept us busy well into September.
The final part of this series on the basic skills of engine companies to get water to and on the fire focuses on the process by which water is sent to the nozzle from the truck.
In my November column, I discussed firefighter recruitment and the effects of the image projected to potential candidates by you and members of your department.
By now all firefighters are aware of the benefits of social media and many of us are proficient on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. I think it’s time to discuss the risks and hazards associated with social media and what I consider a somewhat disturbing trend in its use.
We all volunteered to become firefighters for a multitude of reasons, and we all have stories about why we chose to help our fire departments. We accept the fact that the role of a volunteer firefighter has changed and includes fighting fires and answering emergency calls for everything from medical calls to hazmat incidents.
Have you ever heard a member of your crew say, “This is not what I signed up for”?
The recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters is critical to the successful and efficient operation of a volunteer or composite fire department.
My life has been built around philosophies – I try to treat people as I wish to be treated and I constantly tell myself that any problems I might have are really not as important to most others.
My daughter graduated high school in June and, like most parents, I was a proud member of the audience for the ceremony.
Too often I’ve heard that things are just not the same as they were back in the day. In fact, I’ve caught myself saying that on more than one occasion. I suppose that comes with age and, in the fire service, it’s always easy to compare the way things are with the way things used to be. Our world is constantly changing and, at times, it’s hard to keep up.    
My colleague, Tom DeSorcy, wrote in March about public perceptions of leadership positions in volunteer fire departments. I think Tom’s analogy of busy fires chiefs who appear calm on the outside but, like ducks, paddle furiously under the surface to keep things running smoothly, was spot on.
It was just a matter of time before this column lent itself to a wildlife analogy – at least considering the two animals that write it. (Sorry Vince, I couldn’t resist.) I’d like to share some thoughts on leadership and public perception in relation to the animal kingdom. Do I detect an eyebrow or two being raised at this point?You might think leadership is analogous to the behaviour of a stately lion or another dominant animal but no, this is a leadership analogy based on a duck. That’s right, the lowly, mild-mannered waterfowl that populate lakes and waterways. While you might think I’m a little daffy (pardon the pun), I’m quite serious. Allow me to explain.The way we, as chief officers and leaders in our community, present ourselves in the public eye is paramount to the trust that others have in us and in our abilities. Staying positive no matter the situation and projecting an air of control carries chief officers a long way with the public, the media and your firefighters.As with a lot of fire chiefs in volunteer departments, I don’t have any staff. My office is in the municipal hall so I frequently interact with people who don’t work directly for me. Being in a small community, I take on more roles than just that of the fire chief; I manage our website, do administration and voice narration for our phone system, and act as an tech liaison for computer troubles, all the while maintaining a host of Twitter feeds and Facebook pages.Often I take it upon myself to inject a positive attitude to my work environment. If someone is having a bad day, I only turn it up a notch. My first thought is “Sorry but you’re not bringing me down,” but in reality I’m just trying to demonstrate perspective.  One of my frequent lines is “And how many people died as a result of this incident?” That kind of brings those turning molehills into mountains down to earth. Perspective quickly turns into the realization that things are being blown out of proportion and, hopefully, the rest of the person’s day goes a lot more smoothly.This example illustrates my attitude toward most things. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place to show emotion and concern, but if what is going on inside me doesn’t concern those around me, then I won’t bring it up – especially if it would bring them down.Here’s where the duck comes in. To me, having an air of confidence and control shows balance in your world; a duck is literally living life in the balance whenever it is floating on the water. Many of you have probably heard this: the part of the duck you see on top of the water – the calm, cool collected version – is how people see you and what you project to the outside world. What happens on the inside, or in the duck’s case, below the waterline, is not quite as serene. Upon closer inspection, two webbed feet are paddling like mad, adjusting and correcting, propelling and slowing down, unbeknownst to onlookers.Can you see the comparison now? On the outside, everything is running smoothly yet underneath there is work going on to keep things balanced. Unlike a comparison to treading water, in which case most of a person’s body is below the waterline – thus giving meaning to the phrase keeping your head above water – a duck isn’t paddling to avoid sinking. A duck can coast or it can propel forward, and either way, nobody knows what’s going on underneath. Is the comparison of leadership to a duck starting to make sense yet?What we, as chief officers, face daily takes a toll on us. Whether you get paid to be an officer or it is something you do on the side while running your family business, the job never gets easier. People in authority, from politicians to professional athletes, are well versed at projecting confidence or concern as required; to me, successful leaders are those who do this well.Find your own personal balance and be as positive as you can because while one person’s worst day may be our every day, our worst day is no one else’s, nor should it be. Instead, show strength and confidence for the benefit of those around you.Many of us work and live in smaller communities and we are very public people. While not all of us wear a uniform all the time, people still know who we are and what we represent. I know that it is tough to always be on, and my hat is off to all of you who accept that responsibility and don’t try to duck out of it while you keep on paddling.Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Tom is also very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C. as a communications director and conference committee chair. Email Tom at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept
You cannot mention the word communication today without a focus on social media. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (and the list goes on) are playing greater roles in our lives. In the past we relied on mainstream media to report the news and inform us of events. Today everyone with an electronic device is photographer, reporter, complainer, and helper. But the public can be a valued communicator too, especially during an emergency.
When you’re a broadcaster, whether on radio or television, you’re constantly reaching out to an audience that you presume is there. For the most part, you’re talking into a microphone or camera in a one-way conversation without any feedback from those to whom you’re speaking. How’s that for motivation? In broadcasting school we were taught to treat our audience as just one person, therefore giving listeners the impression that we were talking directly to them and them alone. This experience was enhanced when broadcasters opened the phones and took calls, thus allowing a direct connection with the audience.  Magazine columnists are in a similar situation: we know the readers are there and we get reaction to what we say via emails and personal contact, but the feedback comes only after the column is published – weeks (sometimes months) after it has been written. Which is why the summer of 2014 was special for me; along with my Volunteer Vision co-author and good friend Vince MacKenzie, we took our opinions and columns off the pages of this magazine and to the people.   Over the summer, we presented what we called Volunteer Vision LIVE – three sessions in two provinces at opposite ends of the country. Thanks to Fire Fighting in Canada editor Laura King, who moderated two of our sessions in British Columbia, and Tim Pley, president of the Fire Chiefs Association of BC, who moderated in Gander, N.L., we took readers deeper into our columns, explaining where the ideas came from, the inspiration behind our stories and expanding on the issues we had written about, The beauty of our column is that Vince and I seem to touch on the same themes – not necessarily on purpose. It’s just the way we connect with the issues that face the fire service from coast to coast to coast. During the presentations, we brought forward several columns from the past few years; what struck me was that while the issues weren’t new, they are still relevant today, albeit with some new ideas and opinions. To say we all learned something from this exercise would be an understatement. The questions and comments in the rooms as we explored issues from recruitment and retention to retirement opened my eyes to the number of people who read what we have to say; there was a lot of acknowledgment and there were lots of heads nodding in silent recognition – or agreement – in each session.   While we maintained the same format and storyline, each of the three sessions was completely different. We were unscripted and unplugged, so to speak, and if it wasn’t for the moderators, all of our sessions would have run way over. In fact, all of them spilled into the foyers during the subsequent networking sessions.What I took away from those sessions goes far beyond meeting the readers; the experience reinforced to me that what I have to say is relevant to my peers. The fact that I have a hard time recruiting new members and staying ahead of the calendar resonates in other departments. My concerns over the future of the fire service is shared by many more; in fact, I’ve come to realize that while we tend to focus on recruitment on the front lines, we aren’t doing enough to address the need for leaders in our volunteer world. Seriously, it’s one thing to encourage new members to take on the daunting task of becoming a well-trained firefighter, but the need to step up and take on a leadership role adds a whole new wrinkle. Succession planning is vital to the health of any organization, and coming from a world that always has one foot firmly planted in the past, we need to be aware of this. We’re all not getting any younger, which is one thing I see as our biggest challenge in the future. Touching on one of Vince’s topics – the millennials in our ranks – can you actually see some of these people carrying your torch (and yes, I did say “your”)? As we grow older it may seem harder to realize, but it will and it has to happen.  There are times when we exist within our own little worlds, our small departments, without realizing that what’s happening in the next town – or province for that matter – has an impact on what we are doing locally. I guess we just need to be reminded of this; and, hopefully, through a column written by a couple of small-town fire chiefs, those messages are realized. Train as if your life depends on it, because it does, and understand that you are part of a great big family. I’ve been to Newfoundland and Labrador on three occasions and when asked recently if I have family back there, my answer was yes, yes I do have family back there – a fire family that gets bigger all the time thanks in a large part to my written words and those who read them.Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Email Tom at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept

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