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Been there, done that

In your 44 years in the fire service, what was the most significant change you experienced that affects the way firefighters do their jobs?

November 14, 2011 
By Laura King

Editor’s note: Windsor, Ont., Fire Chief Dave Fields retired at the end of August after 44 years in the fire service, many of them as a leader and mentor. Fire Fighting in Canada editor Laura King recently spoke with Fields about the changes and challenges he has experienced, the 24-hour shift, interoperability, combined fire and EMS, and his vision for the future of the fire service.

Q In your 44 years in the fire service, what was the most significant change you experienced that affects the way firefighters do their jobs?

A The people that I’ve had in my life, the opportunities, the things I got to do in my career, all over the world . . . I’m like a little boy, I’ve forgotten about some of it, but there’s absolutely no question: the introduction of IMS [incident management system]. Firefighters call it ICS from the mom-and-pop stuff that Bruno [Alan Brunacini] taught us about, but for delivery, safety, performance, everything – there’s no doubt in my mind.

Dave Fields, who retired as fire chief in Windsor, Ont., in August after 44 years on the job, worries about the future of the fire service given attitudes about 24-hour shifts and combined fire/EMS. Photo courtesy Windsor Fire Department



When you come up with a system that manages chaos, and how others relate to it – because a lot of civilians don’t relate to it – they understand span of control because in their business people can only handle so much. It’s basically applying a management system to a chaotic situation. We’ve always responded, we’ve also thrown water on fire, but to have that system in place has reduced injuries and deaths in the fire service.

A lot of fire chiefs in Ontario are also the emergency managers for their municipalities. Depending on the size of the municipalities – I’ve enjoyed that opportunity but I think my job is big enough without it – I don’t have enough help. When I go home at night, do I worry? Not so much about the fire stuff – but I can’t give 110 per cent in both jobs. We’re realists in this public-safety stuff, so it’s not if, it’s when, and it’s going to come back and bite us.

I’ve seen IMS in Ontario through EMO [Emergency Management Ontario] with the new doctrine, rolling out the online courses, and one thing that Windsor did, and it’s very unique so far – when Windsor got involved with the intelligent community process, we did a partnership with academia and got more involved with universities and our college, and we bought into a piece of software called WebEOC, and so that brought IMS through an IT process into the emergency ops centre. So we went from manual style to a piece of software that assists you in logging and chronicling events, and what’s happening at the EOC, and in partnership with the university [of Windsor] and the County of Essex. Emergencies don’t know borders, and now we’re linked with Fusionpoint in the U.S. in Detroit and Michigan, and I think we’re the first border town to have that.

We did an exercise yesterday on the river – and we were linked with the EOCs in the U.S., so if you want to talk about interoperability – we do have challenges. But from an emergency-ops perspective, we’ve got it, and it has forced others in other services to get to know IMS, and it has forced others in other agencies to get to know IMS, because you can’t operate it without IMS. So, the electronic aspect and the IT aspect got more people to buy into it, and especially the young people – they love it! I see the worth of this – from my perspective I just want to get ’er done. I know we have to communicate and report after, and this is a great way of doing it.

Q What in the fire service still needs to be done/changed?

A I’m really worried about the cost of public-safety services, and their survival. And a lot of people are worried about that. Yes, fire is an important service – firefighters get a lot of attention, the public has a lot of respect – but not just fire; police and EMS too.

Our budgets are largely for staff, our operating budgets are mainly for salaries; the arbitration system that we have is not responsive from a regional perspective. When we went through this most recent economic downturn and Windsor was the hardest hit Canadian community, there was no recognition of that by the union. We don’t have local bargaining. If you give it to Toronto, everybody’s getting it. If you give it to the OPP, then everybody’s getting it. . . . It’s irresponsible today.
There are differences in costs of living – the cost of living in Windsor is much different than it is in Toronto – and that’s not taken into consideration.

Arbitrators reflect previous trends; they don’t make trends. . . . I’m not saying that police officers and firefighters and paramedics should be poorly paid. They respond to the real world, they just don’t live in it.

The other issue that I’m worried about – we’re costly, what can we do about that? We need to be more productive from a fire-protection basis, and I think we can be; however, the shifts hurt that, particularly in Ontario – and Windsor has always been on [the 24-hour] shift, but they work more hours. There was a saw-off – Windsor has a 48-hour work week and the others were 42 – and when the other municipalities tried to be nice and try out [the 24-hour shift], they got nothing for it.

When [the work weeks] were 72 or 56 hours, you had to have those long shifts in order to incorporate those hours. As the number of hours per week got back down to where most normal people work – it’s archaic today to keep a 24-hour shift. We have highly qualified nurses working 12-hour shifts – they couldn’t work 24. You can’t be more productive on a 24-hour shift. The firefighters need to look at need rather than greed and help the community at the same time; it needs to be a win-win – it can’t be just about you.

The shifts need to change, and part-time needs to come in to help us reduce our costs. That will protect firefighters’ jobs, not hurt their jobs. It’s just not realistic when every other walk of life has seasonal or part-time workers, and [the unions] say you can’t have that in fire or police.

I think you appeal to their sense of fair play and survival; if you don’t start thinking about some of these things the municipalities will have no alternative but to reduce the level of service.

We can’t afford it. We can only have the level of protection that we can afford, and we’re getting to the point of un-affordability. So if we put our heads around some of those things and increase our productivity and embrace some part-time component to decrease overtime . . .

It’s time to stop hiding from this. Yes, [the fire service] has public support, but if you don’t do something about what’s near and dear to the public, because they want your protection. . . . You have great jobs, great benefits, great pension plans, but we’re going to have to come to grips with costs and those are some of the ways to do it, or we’re going to take trucks out of service and everybody loses with that. You’re seeing this in the United States, and Canada will no longer be able to avoid that.

Q Is there a need for a national fire advisor in Ottawa?

A Yes. Yes. Yes.

At the federal level they can’t change because they keep coming out with doctrine that doesn’t include the fire service, and they say, “Oops, forgot again.” It’s no different than 2001 now; we still have issues, and today I can still drive onto the Ambassador Bridge without any inspection, and do a dastardly deed if I so desire . . .

Let’s get into perimeter protection. We’re not asking for money, we’re just asking for a voice at the front end to consult and collaborate. When you hire consultants they always tell you to do that.

A number of years ago I heard about silos, and they have to come down. Yesterday, I was involved with 68 agencies from both sides of the border, Canada and the U.S. – locally we have interoperability – but I have an 800-megahertz radio and they have an 800-megahertz radio and we still can’t talk because the U.S. sold part of that spectrum away and the international channels aren’t available any more.

At the federal level, fire needs a voice – call it a liaison or whatever you want – but in the better public interest it’s still required.

It’s always more successful to start at the top and push it down.

There’s another part of the problem – when you have a service that’s 70 per cent volunteer, how do you take it seriously?

Rural Ontario and rural Canada needs this. It’s just recently that we got any full-time chiefs with any fire education at all, and knowledge of codes and standards, but it still causes government not to take you seriously. It waters down what the urban has to do. We love what they do, and we’ve fought for the tax break and presumptive legislation [for volunteer firefighters], and I’m not saying that we should do away with [the volunteer fire service] – it’s a vital service – but you can’t diminish the needs of the urban sector because the urban sector has some huge needs that need to be addressed.

Q You’ve had some challenges toward the end of your career in Windsor – a serious injury to a firefighter after a fall from a truck, a sexual harassment case in the department, an 87-vehicle major pile-up in dense fog on the 401 in 1999 that killed eight and injured 33 people. What did you learn from dealing with those issues? What did the department learn?

A My challenges started off in 1967 with the Detroit riots . . .

I started off in my career very early – I joined on July 3, 1967, and on July 27, 1967, a civil disturbance took place in Detroit and the neat thing about that – I still have a picture of my chief of the day, Harold Coxon, who went over with our trucks to the riots and did CPR on a firefighter (Detroit had three firefighters killed). . . . In 1849 the Detroit Fire Department had come over [to Windsor] on a ferry and saved Windsor from destruction [in the Great Fire of Windsor]; Windsor was a village at that time and they had a speaking trumpet made – an ornate one – and donated it to the Detroit Fire Department, and gave it to the chief and said thank you so much . . .

So that’s been in the [Detroit firefighters] museum. After the riots in 1967, after Windsor went over for mutual aid for five days, the Detroit Fire Department, ceremonially, handed the trumpet back to the chief in the middle of the Ambassador Bridge, and said, “You’ve earned it back . . .” We didn’t take it back, because it was a gift . . .

I have that picture in my office, along with the commendation from the city of Detroit. We’re a border town. It’s been like that ever since.

As for other significant events, yes, the 87-car pile-up on the 401 . . . I still have a hard time speaking of that without crying. It was totally significant in my life. I have so much respect for all the services that came together. I was [supposed to be] on vacation and Fire Chief Bob Stone in Maidstone Township, who I knew personally, called me – in the middle of the fog – he said, “David, I don’t know where I’m at, but I’m in the middle of hell. Send me everything you have.” And I said, “Get off it, Bob,” and I thought, “I got him this time, I’m not falling for this.”

He ended up being the incident commander and thank God because he was a seasoned veteran. It was a horrible thing but we all came together – every service in the region was involved. It was an amazing event when you see how it was administered, but in the end it was very traumatic because you had to see people die and there was nothing you could do about it and you almost felt guilty because you wanted to die with them.

We had 9-11, power outages . . . no shortage of events. And sometimes it’s not the big ones – people say, “What are you going to do [after retirement], Dave?” My family and friends have been collateral damage to this career for 44 years. But it’s time for my family and my friends now. Because on so many occasions – Christmas dinners or no Christmas dinners – or in the middle of some of the funniest things . . . sometimes it’s not good to say, “Honey, I’ve got to go,” and no woman wants to be No. 2. Any woman who has stuck it out for an entire career has my respect and admiration.

There were tons of lessons. Zero tolerance, first of all – at that time [of the firefighter accident] we were exempt from seatbelt safety. We had already issued an order to the firefighters that despite that, you are ordered to wear a seatbelt. We tried to take a proactive approach. I learned later that apparatus seatbelts were not good; they didn’t incorporate well with the firefighters’ gear. A bit of me buried my head in the sand . . . get in the truck, get to the scene.

So, what I learned from that was that I went out and spoke to our firefighters and went right across the country, and that was part of the healing process for me, and I needed to get the word out because I didn’t want them to go through what I went through. It’s tough love, but I am not ever going to look at another wife or kid and say I wish I had done something different. I’m tired of looking at crying eyes and wishing I had been tougher, so I’m going to be tough, and I’m doing it because I love you.

And the other things I’ve learned, and it’s a message to the service: we’re the only service that I know of that are so under-managed in the sense that we don’t have enough people out of the bargaining unit to manage the business. Captains and district chiefs – from an operational perspective they do a good job when you get to the scene, but they really don’t see themselves as managers or leaders – they eat, live and sleep together, and they could be more effective at helping the fire service have fewer problems.

So, zero tolerance from the fire chief, no question, but we probably need more help at having systems out of the bargaining unit that can enforce things; 300 people and two people out of the bargaining unit to manage that business – oh my goodness.

So, we need more people out of the bargaining unit and zero tolerance, but you need to talk to them and explain why you’re doing things. I made them a deal: the first one I charge for a safety infraction, when your committee deals with it, I want your wife and kids to attend the meeting because they’re going to be on my side – they want you to come home; I want you to come home.

Q Fire-service leaders, particularly in Ontario, are being held to a higher standard than ever by the Ministry of Labour, for training and firefighter safety. Is this a deterrent to those considering becoming officers or is it a reasonable expectation?

A I think they’re right, I think it’s a reasonable expectation; however, they have to look at the fact of what I just said: the fire chief doesn’t have direct control over his operations on a day-to-day basis – it’s those other fire officers that are in the same bargaining unit, so they either grow up and try to be part of the management team and stay in the bargaining unit and raise the bar, or some of those positions need to be taken out. The Ministry of Labour has a job to do, but the fire chief needs more help managing because no matter what they do, even if they’re not there, I’m accountable.

Q Was there a defining moment in your career – the “career” fire or incident?

A When I left Windsor in 1981 and joined the Office of the Fire Marshal, I ended up getting elected to OPSEU [Ontario Public Service Employees Union] and took eight years to get a grievance before the management board of cabinet, and it was one of the highest settlements OPSEU ever had. I fought for parity with police advisor and, at that time, it brought the fire-service advisor equal to the pay of the Toronto platoon chief. The final settlement came out in 1989.

A defining moment? Here I am in a service – and I love this service; I was a Type-A personality – I wanted to do more. And the system held me back. They weren’t going to change the system for me, so I went. The day I got hired [by the OFM] I had to compete with 84 people for that job – that gave me more self worth – I got to go work with some of the best people.

Al Dupuis was the head of the fire board at that time, and I have not met a more visionary person . . . the provincial auto extrication program, hazmat. We’ve got CRBN today. Where did that start? In Ontario, at the OFM. He was such a visionary and he surrounded himself with the best that he could and he gave them the tools to do their jobs. He was prolific with supplying education.

Sid Oxenham was the assistant fire marshal at the time. He did more to teach me leadership; and here’s the other value I got – I wasn’t any brighter than any other individual on this planet, but when you go across Ontario and you see this service from a wider perspective, your vision gets wider, you’re dealing with NFPA and metro chiefs from 22 countries in the world, and local people don’t get a chance to see and do that, so I got an exposure at a very young age that most people wouldn’t, and then I was very fortunate to work with some of the best leaders, and the office was involved with some of the best programs – grants for auto extrication, regional schools that went out and taught this – and I got to be a part of this.

It developed me and gave me tools that I could apply later to be deputy chief in Nepean. I just had to get off the road, I had a baby late in life, so settling down for me would be being a deputy chief in Nepean – it got me off the road.

Then, I had the opportunity in 1994 to come home, and Windsor was home, and at that time my parents were in the later years in their lives, and to have the ability to come home and be with my parents at that time meant all the world to me.

I love Windsor and Essex County – it’s the warmest place in Canada. It’s surrounded by water, so I can have my boat, and we have the best corn and tomatoes ever produced in Canada. What’s not to love? Windsor is such a small town – everybody wants to know the fire chief and everybody knows who you are. In a big city you don’t get that. It’s not an ego thing. You just feel more a part of the community. Going downtown for lunch today I didn’t go in the front door of the restaurant, I had to go to the back door and see the owner, Louis, cutting vegetables and I had to go in and say hi.

The media: a lot of fire chiefs quake, but I’ve got a relationship with the media here and they would never throw me under the bus . . .

Q What changes/additions do you hope to see in the Canadian fire service in the next 10 years?

A We need to be more productive in a good way. We need the change the hours to help us be more productive, and I think through public education – I said IMS was the most significant change but right behind that is public education, which has put people back in charge of their own safety. I don’t think people understand that when the 911 system came out we said, “Don’t worry about your safety, just call us.” You’re in charge of your safety; don’t call me unless you need me. Public education has to get stronger.

I still believe in the U.S. model of EMS and fire being integrated. And why I say that is that many years ago, we were the rescue service. We had two doctors assigned to the fire department; I’m not trying to demean anyone – it’s an important service. The public doesn’t care what colour truck you show up in. The ambulance service was designed to transport patients.

Fire was designed as an intervention service – quickly intervene and stop it from getting worse. Police investigate but not often are they there to stop something. Fire was designed to quickly intervene and stop the situation from getting worse. So, put those skills there, and you can’t help but win, and the transportation service can come later.

Do we have to do things differently in order to do that? Yes we do. Forget the culture. We have to be a little bit more inventive; nobody’s going to lose their job over it – we might lose some managers – you still need the paramedics and firefighters, you just get better service. And the jobs we’re not good at – if the job we’re doing isn’t really a preventative or intervention aspect, maybe we need to give that up to somebody who can do it better. Let’s look at what we do and see how efficient and effective we are.

If I’m good and I’m cost effective, then I’m going to be around.

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