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B.C. fire chiefs aim fire-safety messaging at First Nations

Oct. 7, 2014 - Fire-service leaders in British Columbia are focused on First Nations this week with the launch of a Fire Prevention Week campaign aimed at reducing high fire-fatality rates on reserves.

October 7, 2014 
By Maria Church

Oct. 7, 2014 – Fire-service leaders in British Columbia are focused on First Nations this week with the launch of a Fire Prevention Week campaign aimed at reducing high fire-fatality rates on reserves.

Supported by the Fire Chiefs’ Association of BC and backed by provincial and federal governments, and First Nations groups and representatives, a campaign called By First Nations for First Nations uses traditional imagery and storytelling to stress the importance of working smoke alarms.

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis, past president of the Fire Chiefs’ Association of BC, drove the campaign and says the First-Nations focus for Fire Prevention Week was a long-time coming.
Garis first drew attention to high fire-fatality rates on reserves in 2012 after co-authoring a report for the University of the Fraser Valley called Smoke alarms work, but not forever.

The report analyzed data on fire deaths in relation to working smoke alarms in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario. First Nations were identified as a group more at risk for fire fatalities, with the death rate on reserves 2.4 times greater than the rest of the province.


The report says that in British Columbia between 2006 and 2011, 137 residential structure fires were reported on reservations resulting in five deaths. This works out to a rate of 36.5 deaths per 1,000 residential fires, compared to 15.1 deaths per 1,000 for the remainder of the province.

“It was a huge red flag and it’s not the first time that red flag has come out,” Garis said in a phone interview. “I was able to find other research that had come out and said the same thing.”

Armed with the alarming data, Garis brought the idea of a First Nations-focus for Fire Prevention Week to governments and First Nations representatives.

“I was concerned about the ability to communicate the importance of fire safety in the home on First Nations lands,” Garis said.

Steven Point, a British Columbia provincial court judge and former chief of the Skowkale First Nation, worked with Garis to tailor a fire-prevention messaging to the audience with traditional imagery.

The resulting campaign uses the symbolic image of a raven to represent a smoke alarm, and a white-tailed doe protecting her fawn to represent the family.

Thousands of pamphlets and posters with the traditional images are being distributed across British Columbia’s reserves, as well as 2,000 combination smoke and carbon monoxide alarms with 10-year batteries, donated by Kidde Canada.

Garis said the plan is to develop the campaign into a grassroots education program that instructs First Nations’ youth how to share fire-safety messages and practices on reserves.

Edwin Mountain, president of the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society of British Columbia, said in a press release that using traditional messaging for First Nations will likely make the campaign a success.

“In our past experience working directly on reserve to help address safety issues, we have seen positive change when we combine education materials that reflect traditional aboriginal teaching methods with discussions right at the community level,” he said.

Fire suppression and prevention on reserves is under the jurisdiction of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. AANDC is also the federal department supporting the By First Nations for First Nations campaign.

Blaine Wiggins, executive director of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada (AFAC), said in an interview that the higher fatality rate on reserves in British Columbia, which is similar across Canada, is linked to a lack of regulation and limited resources.

“When you compare First Nations to non-First Nations in everything that would reduce fire deaths, there are gaps that exist in every area,” Wiggins said.

One of the AFAC’s primary concerns is that houses built on reservations are not governed by building and fire codes, he said. Another concern is that fire education and fire prevention activities on reservations are rare.

Wiggins said the AFAC fully supports British Columbia’s By First Nations for First Nations campaign.

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