|CAFC president Stephen Gamble says the addition of an executive director position in Ottawa will improve the association’s relationship with the federal government and help bureaucrats better understand issues that affect emergency services. Photo by Laura King
A I think the biggest thing right now for us is the work of the board for the last two years, which I’ve been on as first vice-president, to take those and make them work.
We’ve changed, administratively, some of the issues that we’ve had to deal with over time and now we’re able to move forward, and I think it’s exciting that we’re going to be bringing on a new executive director, and that person will work with me and the rest of the board in developing policies.
We really take that trusted advisor [of the federal government] role to heart; we had committed to a lot of other things and we didn’t really contemplate the amount of time that one of us is expected to be in Ottawa. [The bureaucrats] are not really comfortable doing things over the phone, so it means being in Ottawa, and being a national organization – with me being in B.C. and other people being in the Maritimes – that takes a considerable amount of time, so having someone in Ottawa full-time will make a big difference.
Much like we learned with the $3,000 tax credit for firefighters – which is a great thing for the volunteers – we learned through that process that on a federal level things take a lot longer, there’s a lot more research that goes into issues, and there are so many dynamics. I probably didn’t even appreciate the difference in the time zones but being here now in St. John’s, I’m sending e-mails home and expecting them to be answered and they’re still asleep and vice versa, so it’s been a learning curve for us but we’re now ready to move forward.
Q One of the unanticipated things that occurred in the last year was the removal of federal funding for the Joint Emergency Preparedness Plan (JEPP) and, therefore, Canada’s HUSAR teams. How will the CAFC better work with government with a new executive director coming on board to prevent these kinds of surprises?
A The recent announcement with the JEPP funding being taken out and the HUSAR teams and the impact on the fire service and the municipalities – I don’t think that was taken into account. Having someone in Ottawa on a regular basis to meet with [federal departments] . . . We have brought the significance of the JEPP announcement to the attention of government and we have made some suggestions to help them through this process, again, taking that trusted-advisor attitude and saying, how can we help government get what they want while also considering what communities across Canada want and need? We can be a facilitator as far as bringing the voices of the communities to Ottawa. They [the federal government] have to develop good policies and be fiscally responsible and I think everyone understands that.
Q What are the issues that the CAFC is looking at in the short term? You’ve brought in the volunteer firefighter tax credit but in Ontario, for example, the OPFFA is looking at expanding presumptive legislation – which is very much a provincial issue but here in Newfoundland there is no presumptive legislation at all – and then we have the biggest issue for the fire service today, which is municipal budget cuts and everyone having to do more with less. How are you addressing those issue?
A Funding is one of the top things that came up in a recent survey, but we need to understand what that means. Is it budget constraints or things like the JEPP grants?
The other things is building codes; we’re talking about six-storey combustible buildings and higher – there’s one being contemplated in Prince George that’s over nine storeys – and there are residential sprinklers, which is a big one for me that I’d like to achieve.
It’s up to Ottawa now and we need to see if we can get the national building code people to take a look at this.
Q How do you present yourselves to Ottawa then as the group or the united voice on this and get a presence in the building-code process?
A I think we’ve had success through our government relations week in Ottawa; meeting with the bureaucrats on a regular basis, getting to know them by face and they get to know us by face, and you develop a rapport with them and they feel comfortable that you’re coming to them to help them, and in the long run it’s going to help us with what they want we to achieve.
A Our members have said that it’s still something they would like us to look at. We have heard rumblings that the government is not interested and so maybe there’s another way we can do it, and we’re hoping that through these dialogues we can find something that [the government] is more comfortable with that still achieves what we want.
In the discussions I’ve had with MPs one on one, they say it would help us if there were someone they could walk down the hall to and say, we’re thinking of doing this, and that person is in tune with all of us across Canada, so it’s a benefit to them, and I see it as more than just something that we want but as something that will benefit them too.
We’re not getting a clear message about why they don’t like it so you speculate that it’s because of adding another layer of bureaucracy, or they’re trying to keep things down – no new initiatives – maybe that’s what it is.
It was just one of those things, they were looking at the whole JEPP program – there were some problems with it – and they made the change but didn’t realize probably that some of the other stuff would be affected.
Again, had someone been there [in Ottawa] and been able to talk to them maybe they could have said hey, what are we going to do about this. And I think that’s the point where we are now – what are we going to do about it? They may want to look at some other way of doing things and I think we can work together to figure it out.
Q Is there a move or a recognition at least given that there are about 1,000 members of the CAFC to increase the membership and provide services to some of the chiefs and smaller departments that clearly need them.
A As we’re conducting this interview the membership committee is meeting with the provincial reps and one of the things that has come up is looking at a blended membership [with the provincial associations].
Also, we’ve lost a few people in this last year, but we’ve had the highest number of new members, so we want to find out why.
There are a number of areas in which we could probably increase our membership. Through the survey we heard that we could do better on communication, and people feel that at times they’re cut off from us, so we should be looking at some of the other successful associations across Canada and learning from them. I know some of them use share points and throw out a question and have people right across Canada say in this situation this is what we’ve found, so something like that – that’s something we discussed just recently with the membership committee, and now having a committee working specifically on this issue, we think we’ll get something good from them.
We’re also getting a lot of younger chiefs coming in who are involved in technology and that will help.
Q You mentioned government relations week in March. What’s the goal and the mission of that week and what do you want to come away with in 2013?
A What we’re leaning toward right now is sprinklers and building codes as being the No. 1 issues.
In the last [government relations week], even though we weren’t going to Ottawa with an ask, we got a portion [10 megahertz (MHz)] of the 700 MHz bandwidth that we were looking for [for first responders] and now we’re going after the last little bit [an additional 10 MHz], so if it hasn’t been done by then I’m sure that will be one of the topics that we’ll be pushing for.
The HUSAR issue, again if it hasn’t been solved by then, will be one of the issues.
We feel that what’s been really successful in the past – which helped us to get the $3,000 tax credit – is narrowing our focus down to one or two items, which helps the MPs who are hearing it and also helps our members who are taking to MPs and bureaucrats who aren’t used to doing so, and this helps them stay focused on the issues. I know the first time I came here it was a laundry list, and you’ve got only few minutes with these people and you’re trying to hit on all the issues.
Q What message do you want to get across to fire officers and firefighters across Canada, both volunteer and career?
A I think the biggest thing right now is that we’d like to feel that we are the voice of the Canadian fire service but we’d like to have more members so that when we say those numbers it really represents that. So I think it’s a drive for all of us who are current members, and past members too, to try to get as many people as we can to join us and see the benefits of the CAFC.
I think the $3,000 tax credit and the 700 MHz – people can now say yeah, I know what [the CAFC] is doing. If we really want to make a change in Ottawa that filters down – to use the sprinkler issue as an example, if we change the National Building Code we can change the provincial code, then the municipalities will be able to change. I think people can see that relationship.
Membership is a huge thing for us right now – we’ve moved away from a funding source [telemarketing], which a lot of people had issues with, and so we need to fill that gap because like anything it costs money to do these things and we want to make sure we’re able to carry on with these initiatives.
Stephen Gamble is the fire chief for the Township of Langley, B.C. He began his career with the City of Port Coquitlam in 1978 as a volunteer firefighter, was hired full-time in 1980 and became chief in 2003. He is an adjunct instructor with the Justice Institute of B.C. and president of the B.C. group of the Canadian Institute of Fire Engineers.