Guest Column: May 2015
By Jeremy Parkin
Stop buying fire trucks! There, I said it. There seems to be this idea that buying a fire truck for a community will prevent any and all fire fatalities. There is a tragic flaw in that thinking when it comes to First Nations communities across Canada.
By Jeremy Parkin
Along with the recent tragedies in Makwa Sahgaiehcan, Sask., and Siksika, Alta., there is a steady stream of stories detailing fire fatalities on First Nations communities. What makes the headlines is usually the inadequate level of fire safety in these communities, followed by an overview of the antiquated federal funding program in place. Some may say it is hypocrisy for me to make generalized statements while I work for a highly funded First Nation with an incredible fire department. But it wasn’t always that way. Our success is in our people, our programs, and our slow and deliberate growth. Being located in Ontario, we benefit from the three lines of defence philosophy – public education, code enforcement, and response. So I hope to shed light on what I and many others believe are the best options for success for creating a fire-safe First Nations community.
The diversity of First Nations across the country is vast. There are many issues facing these communities, and no single idea will solve them; many are intertwined at socio-economic and cultural levels. Overall funding is a historic issue. It has not kept pace over the decades; it creates hardships on many fronts from education to infrastructure. Simply put, it is imperative that the funding model be corrected. There are many stories of fire trucks sitting rusted and unused. Community budgeting and proper funding allocation is critical. It is costly to operate a full-complement fire department with a working fleet. It is not practical to assume that only having a fire department will solve the issue. Zero fire deaths is a common goal for all Canadians. Fire doesn’t target race or ethnicity.
Until the funding model is addressed, there are opportunities to improve. A great place to begin is with a community-risk analysis. Determine what the local risks are, and determine what capacity there is to mitigate them. Compartmentalize and prioritize the risks. I have always praised the benefits of partnerships – local, provincial and federal. A risk-based approach to creating a fire-safe community will prove more successful than relying on suppression and response only.
While First Nations govern and operate at a federal level, nothing stops them from establishing their own regulating bylaws. There are both national and provincial building and fire codes available. There is room in the Indian Act regarding the interpretation of provincial laws. Education on all codes, standards and legislation is paramount. Set the level of service and address the issues brought to light in the risk analysis. Use the existing standards and legislation as tools, and do not be confined by them.
Fire safety is universal, and many very brave and intelligent women and men have solved some of the big concerns. Integrate these. There are numerous success stories from places like Behchoko, N.W.T., to Indian Brook, N.B., to Moose Factory, Ont. Engage with communities like these. We should celebrate these success stories. How have they adapted and overcome and who else can repeat the process? Among the various First Nations political groups there should be discussion and sharing of ideas, opinions and solutions. Changing the big machine of government takes tremendous time, effort and resources. But there are several ways to make changes with immediate impact. Become part of the solution and join local, provincial and federal associations. Lobby for necessary change. Find a champion in your community, one who will ensure there are working smoke alarms in every home. Find somebody who will educate the children, seniors, or at-risk groups on fire safety and home escape planning. Start building homes that meet proper codes. Do something.
The solution is not as simple as pouring more money into the problem. Success has a cost to it, but it cannot be bought. Until there is more money available, create a better value for your community investment. Do not aim for impractical solutions; find realistic and achievable goals. But most importantly, whatever path you choose, invest in your people: they are the greatest resource you will need in building a fire-safe community. The bonds that hold them together will be the programs and services you implement. Give them a reason to unite. Then buy a fire truck.
Jeremy Parkin is the deputy chief for Rama Fire Rescue Service in Ontario with the Chippewas of Rama First Nation. He has 17 years of fire-service experience and spent the past eight years working to improve fire safety in First Nations communities. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org