Fire Fighting in Canada

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Beyond Helmets and Hoses

Everyone has heard stories about people who are great at their jobs then get promoted into management and fail miserably – teachers who become principals, hockey players who become coaches, firefighters who become chief officers.

April 23, 2010 
By Laura King

Everyone has heard stories about people who are great at their jobs then get promoted into management and fail miserably – teachers who become principals, hockey players who become coaches, firefighters who become chief officers.

Chief officers from Ontario participate in the pilot of the Beyond Helmets and Hoses leadership training course last summer.
Photo courtesy Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs.

The meteoric rise of top-notch employees without proper training is a workplace phenomenon that Canadian fire chiefs want to change through a national leadership program for volunteer chief officers.

The two-day program, called Beyond Helmets and Hoses, is the first national leadership training program for chief officers. Essentially, it’s an introduction to fire service management by experienced people trained to deliver consistent messages. It’s affordable – it comes to your jurisdiction so your people don’t have to travel – and it’s run by Canadians. The program is geared to volunteer and combination fire departments and is designed to be completed on a weekend – in a training room or hotel – for a reasonable cost.


The program was  to be launched in May at the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs conference in Toronto, in partnership with the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. The initiative is a partnership between the CAFC and the provincial chiefs associations. The CAFC and the OAFC are counting on the other provincial chiefs associations to support and embrace the program and offer it in their jurisdictions. Ontario, B.C. and New Brunswick are already on board.

The program, says Fire Chief Brad Bigrigg of Caledon, Ont., who is one of eight instructors, will help new fire service officers meet the ever increasing expectations that communities and municipal councils have of their fire departments.

“The fire service continues to evolve and if we don’t get in front of the ball we’re going to get run over by the ball,” Bigrigg said.

“Expectations are changing and even if we are volunteers I think that there’s an expectation by the public that we’re professional volunteers.

“I think that one of the problems that we face, whether you’re in Victoria or Gander, is that people don’t stay in the volunteer fire service as long as they did when my dad was on. So, we have to identify those people who bring extraordinary talent to the department and we have to develop these officers quickly. We have to give them the leadership skills to move the volunteer fire service forward into the next quarter century.”

Indeed, volunteer fire chiefs in southwestern Ontario alone are dealing with challenging issues from presumptive legislation to residential sprinklers to recruitment and retention. Chief officers need to know how to work with government and their communities while meeting department demands.

“We are expected to provide a greater variety of services with a higher competency level than has ever been demanded of us before,” Bigrigg says. “Our regulatory bodies have to have confidence in us and at the same time our constituents have to have confidence in us. And while what we were doing 10 years ago was good we have to do better.

“We have a very small cadre of people to develop. There aren’t that many people who are going to hang on in the volunteer fire service for 10 or 15 or 20 years and we’ve got to develop them further.”

After almost three years of behind-the-scenes work, Beyond Helmets and Hoses was adapted for Canadian use by a committee of CAFC chiefs led by OAFC President Richard Boyes, Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C. President Stephen Gamble and New Brunswick Association of Fire Chiefs President Jody Price. The CAFC got permission from the Volunteer & Combination Officers Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs to adopt and adjust the course.

Last summer, the committee ran its first Canadian pilot course at the Eastern Ontario Fire Academy in Norwood, Ont., with 40 students from volunteer fire departments in eastern Ontario. Earlier, eight fire officers from across Canada completed a train-the-trainer session led by former IAFC president John Buckman, chief of the German Township Volunteer Fire Department in Evansville, Ind., and Greg Render, chief of the Signal Hill Fire Department in Illinois. Those eight fire officers are now instructors – Price and Jim Haley of Oromocto, N.B., B.C. chiefs Don Beer of Abbotsford and Dave Balding of Mahalat, and Ontario chiefs Bigrigg, Kevin Foster of Midland, Ted Bryan of Otonabee-South Monaghan and Bryan Burbidge of King Township.

“This is going to take that large leap out of the company officer program and give people who are aspiring to be chief officers some easily acquired basic leadership foundations,” says the OAFC’s Boyes.

At first, Beyond Helmets and Hoses will focus on five components – leadership, training, recruitment, retention and marketing and branding. Another six modules will be developed later – communications, managing daily tasks, problem solving, team building, customer service and managing change.

The price? Between $150 and $250 a person depending on potential sponsorship of the Canadian program.

The goal for 2010 is to run six courses across Canada, beginning with a two-day program at the OAFC conference. Ideally, says OAFC executive director Barry Malmsten, who is providing administrative support for the program, each of the six courses will be taught by two trained instructors – one from the region in which the course takes place and one from another jurisdiction in Canada to bring a fresh perspective to the classroom.

“Most fire service personnel spend their whole careers in one department,” Malmsten says. “And research has shown that the longer people do the same thing the same way, the more they think that’s the only way to do it.

“If we have an instructor from a different jurisdiction he may talk about ways of doing things that are different from yours. In this way, we can develop and share best practices across Canada. We also recognize that we need an instructor from the host province as he will understand the local legislation and practices.”

Malmsten says the course is instructor dependent so organizers will  use a small group of teachers who have gone through the program. Over the next year or two the organizers will develop a participants’ manual to ensure consistency in the training segments.

Malmsten says organizers will tweak the course after some initial feedback, if necessary. 

“Based on participant feedback from these first six courses we will review the content and the course,” he says. “These first six courses will be a pilot. Having said that we did run a trial version of the course  during the train-the-trainer session and the feedback was highly positive.”

Clearly one weekend isn’t enough time to teach the intricacies of the five initial components. Instead, the course will introduce new chief officers to concepts and challenges that may not have concerned them as firefighters. Essentially, said Boyes, Beyond Helmets and Hoses is an awareness course rather than an operational or technical program.

“It’s really geared to trying to raise competency not on the technical fire side but on the administrative side. We’ve done a great job training firefighters and officers about dealing with the operational issues of emergency response. The trouble is that when people become officers they need to know about all that administration and political stuff if they’re going to be successful. This course will introduce them to that part of the business.

“Although the course has lots of good content, tips and techniques it is just an introduction,” Boyes says. “We hope that it will encourage officers to continue to seek additional training through the CAFC’s leadership program, their provincial chiefs association or colleges and universities.”

Information and applications for fire departments interested in hosting Beyond Helmets and Hoses will be released over the summer.

The program, Bigrigg says, is the beginning of much needed change in the Canadian fire service.

“I really think this is just a small first step. This just gets the door open for people. We have to push some of the company officer training, some of the financial stuff, so they’ll be able to present a budget to council and defend their needs. These are the kinds of issues we need to tackle.

“I think ultimately the goal is to whet the appetite of those who have an interest in staying in the fire service long term, to develop the skills to lead a volunteer fire service in two or eight or 10 years and then it’s their job to start whetting the appetites of those who come after them.”

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