Editor's Blog
Written by Laura King
Jan. 19, 2017, Toronto -  It’s complicated, this two-hatter issue. But the gist of it is this: an American-based trade union is denying its members the freedom that other Canadians have to work and do what they want in their spare time – build decks, plow snow, fix plumbing, be volunteer/part-time firefighters in their home communities.
Written by Laura King
Nov. 24, 2016, Niagara Falls, Ont. – Sometimes, as an objective and trained observer, it’s fascinating to be the proverbial fly on the wall, to gather information, filter the rhetoric, and over time, give readers a clear and contextual picture of fire-service issues.

That’s what I’m doing (or trying to do, despite some obstacles) this week, at the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) mid-term conference in Niagara Falls.

While the OAFC unveiled the basics of its new strategic plan Wednesday morning – enhanced communication, revenue generation, government relations, and members services are at the crux of the document – it is, of course, what’s going on in the background that has people talking.

While the OAFC is getting its ducks in a row for its four-year plan– more detail was provided and approval sought from members in Thursday’s closed businesses session – the much larger, better organized Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) is ensconced in its legislative conference at Queen’s Park, and it has the ear of the governing Liberals.

Although the chiefs association has made considerable strides in government relations recently, the better-financed OPFFA, with a strong presence at the legislature and 13,000 boots on the ground, is, as OAFC executive vice-president Rick Arnel noted Wednesday morning, simply, better resourced.

Again this week, the union has caused a bit of a kerfuffle with its fire-medic-turned-fire-paramedic-turned-patients-first proposal, about which the government is asking municipalities for input, and about which the chiefs have not been consulted by government.


The two associations met earlier this week; OPFFA president Rob Hyndman and others, with the OAFC board, to pitch the IAFF’s new fire-ground survival protocol; the two groups have also discussed other issues, including the ever-frustrating two-hatter controversy, of which Brampton and Caledon firefighters are the most recent targets.

Several people have said this week that Tuesday’s chiefs-union get together was productive and that the two associations can, indeed, work well together on issues.

Save, perhaps, the fire-paramedic situation.


Bizarrely, the government issued a discussion paper on Monday titled Patients First: Expanding Medical Responses, which, ostensibly, addresses challenges with land-ambulance service and promotes the OPFFA’s proposal to give expanded duties to firefighters who are also employed as paramedics, in a tiered-response situation (it’s not clear how many firefighters also work as paramedics). According to the discussion paper, this approach would be voluntary for municipalities.

Any changes, of course, to firefighters’ roles, require amendments to the Fire Protection and Prevention Act.

Essentially, the government wants input about the fire-paramedic proposal “to determine service viability and opportunities.”

Ontario, of course, post-amalgamation in 1998, has three tiers of government: municipal, regional and provincial. Fire is municipally funded; EMS is regional. And according to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), that complicates things.

The government document includes no financials, organizational or operations details. Simply, this: “There are three levels of paramedic scope of practice in Ontario. The ministry is exploring the potential option to allow eligible municipalities to choose to allow full-time firefighter to provide care up to the first level (primary care paramedic level).”

A companion document – a lengthy survey being sent to stakeholders, including municipalities – however, makes it clear that any new costs would be municipal responsibilities.

“Funding responsibility of the optional service will remain at 100% municipal cost,” the survey documents says.

“The proposal would be an optional approach that municipalities can choose to implement at councils’ discretion based upon local decision and needs.”

AMO has consistently opposed the fire medic proposal since it was first introduced in March 2015.

Municipal governments are deeply concerned about the direct and significant impact of the proposal on municipal emergency services, both financially and operationally,” AMO says on its website.

“We will read the [government] discussion paper carefully, but to date, there has been no evidence or cost-benefit analysis seen that shows such an approach would improve patient outcomes.”

More bluntly, AMO says that given the lack of evidence, it’s flummoxed that the proposal is a provincial priority given that municipalities would bear all the costs., labour challenges, and risks.

“Fire services are 100 [per cent] funded by municipalities and only an elected municipal council has the authority to determine the level and type of fire protection services needed by its community,” AMO says.

“We are also concerned that if any municipal council agrees to this proposal it would be replicated throughout Ontario by the current interest arbitration system.”

Instead, AMO says, it wants the government to redevelop land-ambulance dispatch to improve patient outcomes.

To a fly on the wall and an objective and trained observer, it’s interesting to hear the chatter about issues of the day: frustration that on the one hand, some union members refuse to allow their brethren work as part-time firefighters in their home municipalities, but on the other, could be seen to be impinging on another trade union to guarantee themselves employment longevity.  

Written by Laura King
Nov. 23, 2016, Niagara Falls, Ont. - Not once, in Fire Marshal Ross Nichols’ hour-long address to the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs on Wednesday, did he claim to be “working on” the myriad initiatives that fire services across the province are anxious to see come to fruition.
Written by Laura King
Oct. 26, 2016 – An email landed in my in box last week from the always affable Brent Ross, spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety; Ross was replying to my request for details about the Ontario government’s response to the recommendations from the Elliot Lake inquiry.

The gist is this: an RFS – request for service – has been issued for a review of emergency management in Ontario. The successful vendor will be engaged in November (more than two years after the inquiry recommendations were released); the review will begin in December and be completed in the spring (five years after the collapse of the Algo Centre mall); the process includes consultation but it’s not clear with whom. 

“As part of the emergency management review,” Ross said in the email, “the incident management system will be reviewed and a way forward developed.”

Ontario’s incident management system is a weighty document developed years ago with good intentions but it fails to suit the province’s myriad fire-department configurations and staffing models – career, composite, volunteer, urban, suburban, rural – and needs an overhaul.

With emergency management becoming more relevant given weather events and security issues, it will be interesting to see how the review deals with a key recommendation of Elliot Lake Commissioner Paul Belanger, specifically, to steer clear of unified command.

“There should be only one person in overall charge of a response; a ‘unified command’ structure should be avoided,” Belanger wrote in his final report from the inquiry.

Yet emergency services across the province are training on responses to major incidents using unified command. Last week in Mississauga, police, fire and EMS personnel used unified command in an exercise that simulated an attack on a pipeline; and a few weeks ago in East Gwillimbury, unified command was embraced in a tri-services an exercise involving a threat.

Belanger’s logic is as follows: “One final decision maker is essential to avoid conflicts or impasses caused by failure to reach a consensus. The concept of a unified command structure intrinsically contradicts the unity of command doctrine because it fails to ensure that decisions are made by someone who is ultimately responsible and accountable.”

Indeed, to make his point, Belanger quotes the testimony of Dan Hefkey, the former Commissioner of Community Safety, who helped to write the provincial IMS doctrine.

“So, under unified command, it is operating on the assumption that . . . I don’t know everything you know and you don’t know everything I know, so we are dependent, co-dependent, as a result that’s why you have a unified command,” Hefkey said.

“And it then, when you enter into that agreement . . . there is no supreme arbiter to things; you and I are committing to commanding this incident jointly so that we can come to a mutually acceptable conclusion, so that your interests and my priorities are all met . . .  But. . . it’s not clean and it’s not to say that you’re going to have harmony one hundred per cent of the time. There are times when there are disagreement but when you decide that you are entering into a unified command arrangement that’s what you are doing.”

Question: “A course of action between the two leaders of a unified command, assuming it is two, to disagree is not acceptable, correct?

Hefkey: “No, they can disagree.”

Question: “Sorry, if the disagreement results in no decision being made?”

Hefkey: “That’s unacceptable.”

Question: “That’s unacceptable?”

Hefkey: “Absolutely correct.”

Question: “You, in that particular case you would have dysfunctional unified command?”

Hefkey. “That’s correct.”

“As I have indicated,” Belanger said in the report, “the unified command structure is not well understood by the men and women who have to work with it on a regular basis. This difficulty is, in my view, because they understand that a system which allows for the possibility of clashing or inconsistent decisions, is unworkable.”

Essentially, the commissioner said, the province’s incident-management system should be amended to eliminate the unified command model and require one incident commander “at all times.”

According to Brent Ross, once the emergency management and IMS consultation/review is completed in the spring, the ministry will develop proposals to government in response to the review findings.

I expect Commissioner Belanger will be watching, with interest.








Written by Laura King
Oct. 18, 2016, Toronto – I waited and watched and, sure enough, Friday afternoon, the Ontario government posted an update about the recommendations from the inquiry into the Elliot Lake mall collapse and the emergency response to it.

It’s a brief – and rather vague – document.

There were, you’ll recall, 71 recommendations in the Oct. 14, 2014, inquiry report – many dealing with building inspections and inspectors (the government has, indeed, done some work in those areas), and 31 specific to emergency management.

There are, in the emergency-response section of the press release, nine updates, the first, of course, being a review of emergency management and the provincial incident management system.

The mall collapsed June 23, 2012; the inquiry convened in August 2013; and the recommendations were released two years ago. Lest I sound like a broken record, some context: In that time, the province of British Columbia – buoyed by a handful of dogged chief fire officers – released a comprehensive report by its fire-services liaison group, created new minimum training standards, developed the Structure Firefighters Competency and Training Playbook, and passed the new Fire Safety Act.

There are lots of action words in the Ontario government’s press release – reviewing, developing, increasing, strengthening, ensuring, exploring, engaging – all in the present tense, all ongoing, all yet to be completed. For example, “Reviewing Ontario’s emergency management and incident management systems to further enhance and improve the province’s ability to respond to emergencies.”

No details are provided and, as far as I’m aware, little has changed. (I’m waiting for an email reply from the Office of the Fire Marshal, specifically about the status of the emergency-management and IMS reviews.) Certainly there had been talk about committees and sub committees and both review processes, but nothing has come to fruition.

Indeed, the government web page about Ontario’s incident-management system still links to the 2008 provincial IMS doctrine, as it’s known, and which inquiry witnesses called unwieldy and impractical.

Why the slower-than-the-speed-of-government response? Let’s review. In August 2013, the Office of the Fire Marshal merged with Emergency Management Ontario. The mandate of the combined agency was (note the past tense) to work with municipal partners to deliver fire-safety and emergency-management programs and services, share expert advice with local decision makers, and support municipal response efforts in emergencies.

In August 2015, fire marshal Ted Wieclawek left the office. OPP inspector Ross Nichols was named interim fire marshal in October 2015; his contract has now twice been extended while the government seeks the (apparently elusive) most-qualified candidate.

I have witnessed myriad presentations about the reorganization of the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management; like everyone else, I waited and watched for change and progress but was told by various OFMEM officials that the reorganization was extensive and time consuming and that, in the words of the fire marshal, “we’re working on it.”

In September in Thunder Bay, Al Suleman, who was director of emergency management with the OFMEM (but is now director of standards, training and public ed), explained that the agency is reorganizing the reorganization (my words, not his) and that the two entities are separating, having found the merger not to their liking – more of an annulment than a divorce given that the marriage was never consummated.  


Meantime, updates on other inquiry issues noted in Friday’s press release – urban search and rescue, OPP incident-command training, and helping municipalities handle media during emergencies – are equally vague.


It’s interesting, though, that there appears to be more focus on managing the message than managing the emergency.













Written by Laura King
Sept. 13, 2016, Thunder Bay, Ont. – What always strikes me at firefighter training weekends is the desire of the participants to learn – for the most part, they are volunteers who take vacation days, cover their own registration and drive for hours, no expenses paid.

But while the focus at FireCon Friday and Saturday was hands-on-training for firefighters, talk in meeting rooms and hallways was equally enlightening.

Mentions of training to the "gold standard," a now ubiquitous phrase used by the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association in a battle over staffing in Sault Ste. Marie; the absence of the fire marshal at the premier training event in the northwest; the lack of action by the OFM on recommendations from a fire-fatalities inquest; the OPFFA's firefighter-paramedic proposal, and an upcoming "minister's table" consultation process; adequacy standards; the separation (after only a brief union) of the offices of the fire marshal and emergency management – all fodder for discussion and debate.

While Fire Marshal Ross Nichols' absence due to the Canadian Fallen Firefighter Foundation memorial in Ottawa was excused by some (the OFMEM hosted the weekend), the span between Thursday's FireCon opening and weekend events in Ottawa was noted by others.

That the OFMEM sent Al Suleman, director/deputy of prevention and risk management, was nice – Suleman is personable and extremely knowledgeable – but the decision was perceived by some of the 250 FireCon participants to mean that the needs and concerns of the northwest's fire services are secondary.

Suleman's presentation Friday morning to delegates in the FireCon leadership track was thorough. Among other things, Suleman outlined inquest recommendations from May that have yet to be considered (there will be more information in a month or so, he said); and he explained the rationale for the short-lived marriage of the offices of the fire marshal and emergency management that occurred with considerable bureaucratic fanfare in 2013.

"It ended up diluting both the fire side and the EMO side," Suleman said. "Emergency management and fire are distinct."

Hence the ongoing reorganization – the reorganization of the reorganization – at the OFMEM that has seemingly been the focus of the office rather than the provision of "leadership and expertise in the reduction and elimination" of hazards to public safety, as is its mandate.

"We've made some adjustments to the org[anizational] chart," Suleman said, "with dedicated business lines for emergency management and for fire."

Suleman noted that Fire Marshal Nichols, who has been seconded from the Ontario Provincial Police and who declared in May that he would happily continue for another year as interim fire marshal, has had his contract extended for six months while the province looks for a full-time replacement – which makes one wonder what the powers that be have been doing about that for last year.

While the politics of fire-service delivery in Ontario was the topic of much after-hours discussion in Thunder Bay, there's no doubt many FireCon delegates were oblivious to the banter, focused instead on training in public ed, auto and big-rig extrication, firefighter survival, search and rescue, propane fires, training-officer development and SCBA/PPE proficiency.

Their frustration is more likely to be founded in the lack of available and accessible funding, training and testing – mind you there are ongoing efforts by several agencies and others to improve all of those.

Still, it's rather a bitter pill to swallow for volunteers who take vacation days, cover their own registration and drive for hours, no expenses paid.

Written by Laura King
Aug. 30 2016, Toronto – Talk about a hornet’s nest. If you haven’t been following, the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) is upset about a plan in Sault Ste. Marie to reduce the number of front-line, municipal firefighters by 20 over three years (that’s 25 per cent), through attrition, and increase the number of paramedics, given the volume of medical calls.
Written by Laura King
July 5, 2015, Toronto – Finally! After nine years of attending conferences from coast to coast, members of the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association (MFCA) meet next week . . . in my home town, Sydney, N.S.
Written by Laura King
June 24, 2016, Toronto – I was taken aback yesterday when a builder at the back of the room at the OAFC Home Fire Sprinkler Summit said the information being presented was all new to him – that he'd never heard of NFPA 13D, the standard for sprinklering residential buildings.

Residential sprinklers are, of course, optional, so I guess there's some logic to the fact that the gentleman had no clue – to put it bluntly: he had no need to know. Or so I thought.

Turns out the gentleman is the CEO of the Ontario Home Builders' Association, so given what I perceived (until yesterday) to have been fairly widespread and consistent fire-service messaging about sprinklers saving lives, it's clear that's not the case.

The point of the summit – the first in Canada – was simple: to start a conversation with the people who plan, design and build homes, and, ultimately, to improve life safety.

Analogies abounded – seat belts, hockey helmets, and, in particular, air bags, demanded by consumers to keep them safe, and, therefore, embraced by the vehicle industry: safety does sell. The challenge: how to translate that desire for safety on highways to safety at home?

Cost, or perceived cost, is a sticking point: NFPA sprinkler guru and myth buster Matt Klaus cited a mere $1.35 a square foot for residential sprinklers but ceded that's in U.S. dollars ($1.72 Canadian), and for multi-unit installations rather than single dwellings or retrofitting. Still, it's affordable – even the builders agreed with that.

More myth busting: NFPA 13D is a life-safety standard, not a property-loss standard; and residential sprinklers are different from commercial units – specifically designed to hit walls and drip down onto the myriad combustibles pushed against the four sides of any given room in a typical home, and douse a fire. Sprinklers put out fires, use far less water than a fire hose, and do much less damage.

With 100 fire deaths annually in Ontario – a recent inquest examined seven fire fatalities and recommended consultation on sprinklers – what's the hook for the builders?

Trade off. In Huntsville, for example, Fire Chief Steve Hernen – the OAFC president – said builders are buying-in, partly because they're getting something in return: higher density housing, waiving of local development charges, more appealing sub-division designs.

The key, according to Don Jolley, the fire chief in Pitt Meadows, B.C., is to normalize sprinklers as a critical part of a broader fire-protection system. A Pitt Meadows bylaw passed in 2005 requires sprinklers in most new residential construction – at an average cost, Jolley said, of $1.07 a square foot. Since then, no fire in a residential or commercial building with sprinklers in Pitt Meadows has burned beyond the object of origin; more importantly, there have been no fire deaths in any of those buildings.

No one yesterday advocated sprinklers as a replacement for efficient fire-department response. But for developers who hadn't previously seen videos of side-by-side burns or understood 15-minute rural response times, a collective light bulb seemingly came on.

There's no need, builders were told, for sprinklers in attics or garages – most fatalities happen in kitchens, family rooms and bedrooms.

But to save more lives given factors such as response times and lightweight construction, sprinklers are a necessity.

"The best builders in the world are not going to stop a smoking fire, or a fire caused by a candle or an arcing wire," Klaus said.

"I don't care how good you build the home, all I need are oxygen and an ignition source and I have a fire."

Smoke alarms work – but children, teenagers, and intoxicated adults sleep through them (builders learned this through videos yesterday), and people take out the batteries. Sprinklers, said Cynthia Ross Tustin, the fire chief in Essa Township and summit chair, are simply plumbing – nothing for builders to fear.

Still, as Fire Marshal Ross Nichols told summit participants first thing yesterday morning, change does not come easily.

So, then, how to sell safety, and sprinklers, and how to get consumers to buy-in?

Ask media strategist Jay Acunzo. Facts and stats are fine, Acunzo said in a presentation about effective messaging, but neither resonates emotionally with homeowners.

Essentially, Acunzo said, stop selling sprinklers and sell life safety: hit home buyers in the heart. Be creative.

That's a leap for fire-service personnel used to neat stats and facts. But it's clearly necessary, given the wide-eyed builders in the room yesterday.

Not to give away Acunzo's shtick, but if you haven't seen it (and need a distraction on a Friday!), Google "Dumb Ways to Die" and watch the YouTube video (or click here). The award-winning Australian public-service announcement for Metro Trains Melbourne is brilliant, different, memorable, and unexpected (apologies – you'll be humming the tune all day!).

As Chief Jolley said after the summit wrapped up Thursday afternoon, it'll take time for a para-military organization that generally suppresses creativity to embrace new ideas.

Maybe so, but a preventable house fire is, indeed, a dumb way to die.
Written by Laura King
June 14, 2016, Toronto – The news out of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) conference in Collingwood yesterday – that the province will review the union’s firefighter/primary-care paramedic proposal – is not surprising to those who’ve been paying attention. But it sure hit a nerve.
Written by Laura King
May 19, 2016, Toronto – First responders in all provinces except Ontario will have access to an NFPA training package to help them handle collisions and extrications involving alternatively fuelled vehicles, under a partnership with fire marshals' offices across the country.

The NFPA announced the partnership May 10, a week before the Ontario government on Tuesday committed $7 billion for a climate-change plan that includes rebates for drivers of electric vehicles.

The Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) confirmed Wednesday that it does not have the necessary funding to buy the licence to sign on to the NFPA program. All other provinces and territories are contributing up to $100,000 each and providing the training free of charge to firefighters and other responders.

"The OFMEM is currently looking at other options, including potential partnerships, in furtherance of funding for the NFPA program," said the OFMEM's Tony Pacheco, assistant deputy fire marshal and executive officer, in an email.

If my understanding is correct, the partnership had been in the works for a considerable time, and, in fact, had been supported by the OFMEM and previous Ontario fire marshal Ted Wieclawek.

That the country's most populous province, with, logically, the highest volume of alternatively fuelled vehicles, found $7 billion to fund its 57-page Climate Change Action Plan but failed to ante up $100,000 to teach responders to safely rescue motorists from collisions is vexing, yet typical.

Firefighter training, it seems, is low on the province's priority list, the government seemingly more interested in investigations and enforcing its rules and regulations than ensuring responder safety by developing solid and affordable programming at the Ontario Fire College.

Which is rather incongruous given that under provincial occupational health and safety legislation, firefighters and others are prohibited from responding to incidents for which they have not been properly trained.

Already some fire departments are reviewing auto-ex responses on provincial highways given the imbalance between the cost of sending firefighters to the scene, and the reimbursement from the government.

(Not to mention the state of flux at the OFMEM: as interim Fire Marshal Ross Nichols told fire chiefs in Toronto two weeks ago, frustration with government inaction on long-promised fire-service initiatives – changes to the provincial incident management system, more public education, improved standards – is mounting.)

While Pacheco said dangers and common principles of electric vehicles are discussed in other training – NFPA 1001 and 1033, the fire investigator course –there is no dedicated program.

Indeed, the NFPA and the council of fire marshals noted in their press release that the federal-government co-ordinated document, Electric Vehicle Technology Roadmap for Canada, highlights the necessity for training.

"Emergency responders need training on EVs to ensure they execute their duties in a safe and timely manner," the report says. "They need to know how to deal with high-voltage batteries and flows of electricity within vehicles in order to safely extricate victims at times of collisions."

Nova Scotia Fire Marshal Harold Pothier, who is the president of the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners, said in an interview Wednesday the electric, hybrid and fuel-cell vehicle safety program should roll out in most regions at the end of the summer or in early fall.

According to the release, career and volunteer firefighters, police, emergency medical services, tow truck operators and other first responders will have access to train-the-trainer and in-classroom sessions, resources, and emergency field guides that explain how to handle AFV incidents on-scene.

Except those in Ontario.
Written by Laura King
May 9, 2016, Grande Prairie, Alta. – It was remarkably fitting that as we approached the fire hall in Sexsmith, Alta., Saturday afternoon, our last stop before our departure point in Grande Prairie after three days at Northern HEAT in Peace River, the Answer the Call recruitment logo appeared, prominently placed on the east side of the building.

Because that's what's happening here in Wild Rose Country: firefighters, mostly volunteers, are being dispatched to Fort McMurray and other burning areas of the province, answering the call to help fight a seemingly unstoppable blaze.

Our driver, Sexsmith Capt. Chris Welsh, had the Answer the Call logo – the province-wide campaign that goes national in September through the CAFC – made into an outdoor sign for a recruitment drive a year ago and opted to keep it up, despite a waiting list to get on the department, a reminder of the role volunteers play in the community of just 2,400.

The three-bay hall, a decades old white, wooden building that's being replaced next year at a site a couple of blocks away, sits on a corner by a blacksmith museum, dwarfed by the town's grain elevator out back.

To say that Welsh, who drove fellow Northern HEAT speaker Peter Van Dorpe, the chief in Algonquin-Lake in the Hills, Illinois, and me to and from Peace River, are proud of their department is an understatement: all 20-plus volunteers – average age around 25 – are NFPA 1001 certified.

Sexsmith is part of the County of Grande Prairie; firefighters from these parts and elsewhere in the province have shuttled back and forth to Fort Mac over the last several days; others were dispatched to High Level, where Fire Chief Rodney Schmidt needed reinforcements to battle a massive lumber-mill fire, the burning wood piles 80 feet high, 60 feet wide and a mile long and threatening to spread (the massive Norbord building saved by firefighters.)

Schmidt, the president of the Peace Regional Fire Chiefs Association, arrived back at Northern HEAT Saturday afternoon, having been called home on Wednesday in the middle of flashover training, the mill fire still burning but in good hands under incident commander Trevor Grant, High Level's former deputy, now a deputy with the County of Grande Prairie.

At that point Saturday, 70 firefighters from 12 departments – Grande Prairie city and county, Grande Cache, Slave Lake and others – worked the mill blaze, all brought in under the Northwest Alberta emergency resourcing agreement drawn up by area chiefs and, so far, including 27 municipalities.

The agreement was born of a wildfire that threatened High Level last year, to simplify the process of requesting resources from other departments while ensuring that all municipalities remain properly staffed, costs are properly (and fairly) allocated and personnel are properly rotated.

Even after the Slave Lake fire in 2011, the province has yet to develop a municipal resourcing inventory, Schmitdt explained, although the Calgary Emergency Management Agency recently set up a portal for that purpose. Peace region chiefs, however, have established their own system along with the resourcing agreement, relying on each for support, equipment and manpower, keenly aware of the need to access additional trucks and personnel during emergencies and having the necessary legalities in place to do so quickly and efficiently.

The run to High Level – not far from the Northwest Territories border – from Peace River is 300 kilometres. Grande Prairie is 200 kilometres south, Slave Lake 240 kilometres. Fort McMurray is almost 700 kilometres away.

The more than 100 firefighters here, from the likes of Loon River, High Prairie, Fort Vermillion, Fairview, Nampa, Wembley, Whitecourt, Peerless Trout First Nation, St. Isador Three Creeks, High Level, La Crete and Grande Prairie, think no more of hopping in their pickups – or driving aerial trucks hundreds of kilometres – to help a fellow department than they do of going to practice on Tuesday nights or spending vacation time training at Northern HEAT.

They have answered the call.


View a Facebook gallery of photos from Northern HEAT.


Written by Laura King
May 6, 2016, Peace River, Alta. - The Northern HEAT – (Hands-on Education Awareness Training) conference here is a wonderful event – and this year held coincidental to a horrific backdrop of the carnage of wildfire.

This is my second conference in less than a week and the contrasts are stark and illuminating.

Twenty-four hours ago I could see the CN Tower. This morning I smell wildfires in northern Alberta – the other side of fire fighting. We may be a country of densely populated urban centres, but Mother Nature can still deliver cruel reminders about who is really in charge.

The deputy chief for the County of Grande Prairie Regional Fire Service, Dan Verdun, was to pick up some of the conference speakers at the airport yesterday. He is in Fort McMurray.

The president of the Peace Regional Fire Chiefs Association, High Level Chief Rodney Schmidt, was instructing flashover training earlier this week when he got a call, jumped in his truck and headed north, lights and sirens flashing – an industrial/wildfire threatening his community.

Handfuls of firefighters from departments in the region have been dispatched to Fort MacMurray or High Level, everyone being careful to ensure there are enough resources left at home to provide proper coverage in this volatile, tinder-dry province.

Driving north to Peace River from Grande Prairie last evening, up Highway 2 and through the stunning river valley with Capt. Chris Welsh and firefighter Craig Rees from Sexmith, smoke from a fire in Fort St. John, B.C., blanketed the setting sun, ash in the air when we got out of the Tahoe.

There may, depending how things go today, be more conference speakers here than delegates. But as Schmidt said when I emailed him to check on the conference status, the show must go on.

And for good reason.

Conferences and trade shows like this are the venue for the intellectual cross pollination that educates and informs the fire service.

My email in box is full of notes from the likes of Jamie Coutts, chief for the Lesser Slave Lake Regional Fire Service, who, needless to say, was in Fort Mac helping out earlier this week. He has seen this movie and his institutional knowledge from his community's experience in invaluable. He has spent a lot of nights in bad hotels travelling Canada and sharing his story since 2011.

Lou Wilde, assistant chief in Kelowna who fought the devastating wildfires there in 2003 and 2009, messaged me last night, asking to give Fort McMurray Chief Darby Allen his best.

Coutts and Wilde know the horror that Allen is living; everyone here is praising the chief's leadership, calm, and authority.

The magnitude of the blaze enveloping Fort McMurray is mindboggling. Reading story after story about the fire while waiting for the flight to Grande Prairie, a Canadian Press report put things in perspective: at 850 square kilometres – and having grown nine times in size since Wednesday – the flames have consumed an area the size of Calgary, where I happened to be sitting in the airport.

This is not new for Alberta. Three years ago when I was in Peace River, a handful of chief officers met to develop a response team similar to those south of the border that deploy to fires too big for local agencies to handle. There was talk of cross training more municipal/structural firefighters and wildland teams to better understand the urban interface, and subject-matter experts (logistics, for example) who could descend on a stricken community and relieve local fire personnel so they could look after their families with clear heads, knowing others were handling the incident.

What struck me, at the time, was the commitment of the group of chief officers in the room – at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night – and their knowledge that the likes of Slave Lake, or worse, was not a possibility, but a given. The institutional memory and the transfer of knowledge among those involved is deep and deliberate: most had been to Slave Lake and were keenly aware that their communities are vulnerable to the winds and climate conditions that whipped the 2011 fire into a frightening frenzy.

After consecutive record wildfire seasons in western Canada, a significant portion of Alberta is burning, so early in the year – 49 separate wildfires as of Thursday night – and BMO Capital Markets says the Fort McMurray blaze alone is "by far the largest potential catastrophe loss in Canadian history."

Having lived in Edmonton in the early 1990s, smoke wafting south from wildfires in the north was common, just rarely in May.

But as fire-and-weather specialist David Moseley, explained in Fire Fighting in Canada in April 2015, May is the most dangerous month.

"There are two weather conditions that are part of the equation," Moseley wrote. "The first is crossover, when the temperature in degrees Celsius is more than the relative humidity expressed as a percentage. The second weather condition is high wind." All that, and the perfect storm of El Nino, a mild winter and little snow.

And as Chief Coutts said in our Fire Fighting in Canada This Week newscast two weeks ago, watch the conditions, not the calendar.

That's why conferences like this matter. As sure as Slave Lake learned from Kelowna and Fort McMurray from Slave Lake, so, too, Fort Mac will build become template for success in the face of horror somewhere else.

Writing last night from 15,000 feet up, on a northbound Air Canada Bombardier Dash 8-300, it was difficult to fathom that the snowcapped Rockies to the west glistening in the evening sun, and the spectacular river valleys below, are complicit in Mother Nature's caldron of disaster.

Conferences like this are the connective tissue of the Canadian fire service. This is where people learn and share and prepare for a day they hope never comes.

The backdrop is smokey and real. If that lends an urgency to the learning in the next 48 hours, so much the better.

But the show must go on.
Written by Laura King
May 4, 2016, Toronto – It had to have been the most humbling couple of hours interim Ontario Fire Marshal Ross Nichols has experienced since he was appointed seven months ago.

First, Nichols was grilled by the province's training officers, who are meeting during the Ontario Association of Fire Chief (OAFC) conference, their frustration with delayed projects and changes palpable and clearly vocalized.

Then, following a speech to fire chiefs by Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi in which the politician put the audience on notice that change is imminent – consistent standards, improved training, clear guidelines and more public education – Nichols, essentially, said . . . nothing.

Having been playfully warned by outgoing OAFC president Matt Pegg to refrain from using the phrase "we're working on it" in relation to myriad anticipated changes necessary to modernize the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) and its mandate, Nichols was blunt, admitting that the speed of government is excruciatingly slow and, for him – an OPP inspector seconded to fire – exceedingly frustrating.

The frustrations? Things Nichols didn't know he didn't know: that the OFMEM has 17 websites, many of them unnecessary or unworkable; that the time and energy of well-paid people put into the development of a municipal risk-assessment tool was all for naught – the OFMEM, Nichols said, should not be in the tool-making business; that there are issues with the speed of firefighter test results. "We're working on it," Nichols said. More than once.

Nichols, looking pallid under the harsh lights in the conference room at the Toronto Convention Centre and in front of more than 250 chief fire officers and public educators, asked for patience and, in a lighter moment, admonished the frustrated masses to refrain from sending emails with multiple exclamation marks, capital letters and threats to carbon copy Naqvi and Deputy Minister Matthew Torrigian. Nichols will, he said, reply to emails and phone calls but, in not so many words, urged everyone to grow up and play nicely together in the sandbox.

Nichols, who was likely a good cop but by his own admission is far from an exceptional orator, started well, hauling his 72-hour emergency-preparedness kit to the stage, this being Emergency Preparedness Week. There were chuckles, and even some sympathy among chief officers after the 30-minute speech, of the challenges of fixing an inherited system just as the move to NFPA standards from the Ontario curriculum occurred, and with internal personnel issues and longstanding and complex challenges such as the Northern Fire Protection Program (the NFPP website was closed for maintenance when I checked it this morning). There is, Nichols said, "a working group looking at what's needed in the north."

Others were less kind afterwards, questioning the lack of a single announcement in what was undoubtedly a highly anticipated presentation – no update, for example, of the review of the provincial incident management system, recommended in the Elliot Lake Commission of Inquiry in October 2015.

There was mention of the changes at the Ontario Fire College and credit given to principal Carol-Lynn Chambers for Herculean efforts to revamp the institution, but also acknowledgement of slow progress, stalled by government bureaucracy.

Nichols acknowledged that there will be change as a result of the recommendations announced last week at the inquest into seven fire fatalities in Ontario in 2012 and 2013 but gave no specifics.

"The inquest," Nichols said, "highlighted the value of training, standards and public education." Which the OFMEM has known for years. (Earlier, Naqvi had said the government will review the Fire Protection and Prevention Act to clarify municipal obligations of fire prevention and staff training.)

Nichols acknowledged conversations about First Nations fire protection, but again, no announcement. "Good meetings," he said.

Having roundly apologized for the snail's pace of progress, and thoroughly accepted ownership of the need to get on with things, Nichols opened the floor to questions. Unsurprisingly, given Nichols' full disclosure that there's nothing to report, there were just two – a statement rather than a question from OAFC first vice president Steve Hernen, who acknowledged the fire marshal's forthrightness but made it clear that chiefs, too, are frustrated – and a second that involved more local issues outside the purview of the OFMEM.

Hernen was elected OAFC president Wednesday afternoon.
Written by Laura King
May 2, 2016, Toronto - Thirty-three recommendations were made Friday afternoon by the five-person coroner's jury who heard over four weeks the complex and sometimes gut-wrenching details of seven fire fatalities in Ontario in 2012 and 2013.

Among the recommendations are consultation about mandatory sprinklers in new construction; more – and better – public education and, as expected, targeted to specific groups; and consideration by municipalities and fire departments of re-allocating money to prevention and inspections, from suppression.

Training, too, is at the crux of the lengthy list of recommendations, given the lack of mandatory course requirements for fire dispatchers in Ontario, a fact that was widely reported by rather gobsmacked reporters covering the inquest, to a rather naive public.

Indeed, the jury recommends that the province institute mandatory certification for inspectors, public educators and communicators – finger pointed directly at the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. It is rather flummoxing that the people, as the jury said, "whose primary job function it is to perform fire inspections, public education and/or communication" in Ontario require no standardized, mandatory certification. That said, of course, neither do firefighters.

The jury also calls for collaboration between police and fire on training for fire responses, and municipal websites and literature to explain levels of service, response times, and coverage – full-time, part-time or volunteer.

What became overwhelmingly clear to the jury during the inquest into separate fires in Whitby and East Gwillimbury in which three teens and four members of one family perished, was the lack of public understanding of the consequences of lightweight construction, the complexity of a fire-department response from the 911 call to water on the fire, and the need to be out of a burning structure before the trucks arrive.

While witnesses testified that they understood their municipalities' levels of service, it became clear during the inquest that few people outside the fire service recognize the rescues on Chicago Fire are fiction, and that smoke kills people who fail to properly protect themselves with alarms and a well-practiced escape plan.

Re-allocating money to public education from suppression, as the jury recommends municipalities and fire departments consider doing, is about as likely to happen as the end of 24-hour shifts.

I know this because, as I sit in the foyer outside the OAFC trade show looking at billions of dollars worth of fire equipment – trucks, hoses, thermal imagers, PPE with integrated TICs – it occurs to me (actually, it was pointed out by an observant deputy chief) that of the hundreds of booths at the show, few, if any, are dedicated to prevention and public education; it's about the business of suppression.

But here's what no one's saying out loud: Had Benjamin Twiddy, 19, Marilee Towie, 17, and Holly Harrison, 18, thrown the burning towel that started the fire in the second-storey Whitby apartment into the sink rather than down the stairway, or sheltered in a room with a closed door, and had the Dunsmuir family had a working, main-floor smoke alarm, the outcome may have been different.

People are responsible for their own well-being and survival. Danielle Migueis, the 911 call-taker who answered Robert Dunsmuir's cell phone call from his parents burning East Gwillimbury home said although she wasn't required to do so, she used common sense, called back after the line was disconnected, and tried to help the family to find a way out of the house.

Sadly, common sense can't be legislated.
Written by Laura King
April 19, 2016, Toronto – There is consensus among those who have testified at the inquest into seven fire fatalities – three in Whitby, four in East Gwillimbury – that responders did everything by the book but couldn't save the three teenagers and the four members of Dunsmuir family who perished in the separate blazes in 2012 and 2013.

Maybe the book needs to be rewritten.

Public education – that first line of defence that successive Ontario fire marshals have preached – came up short; other than calling 911, neither the teens nor the Dunsmuirs were adequately armed with the necessary know how to give themselves a chance of survival, and in the latter incident – a fire that started in the main-floor laundry room – there was no smoke alarm.

A landlord shirked his duties – and the second line of defence collapsed in the Whitby case when an inspector failed to thoroughly ensure necessary fire-protection measures were in place.

Response times were discussed at various points in the three weeks since the inquest started on March 29 – eight minutes for Whitby Fire to arrive on scene despite the hall being 260 metres down the street, and 12 minutes for East Gwillimbury's volunteer firefighters to reach 72 Howard Ave. in the community of Sharon, both well within the norm.

Career versus volunteer? Not an issue, despite some gentle pokes by Mark Train, a Mississauga firefighter who represents the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (but is not a lawyer), at the East Gwillimbury firefighters who testified last week – mainly about fire-ground staffing and the fact that the incident commander also drove the first-in engine.

Train tried in vain on Monday to poke deeper, this time at East Gwillimbury Chief Phil Dawson on the stand, but lawyer John Saunders objected to questions about budgets and levels of service as irrelevant to the inquest, and coroner Dr. David Evans agreed.

Training? More of it, and standardized, for 911 call takers and fire dispatchers, witnesses told coroner's counsel Frank Giordano; and maybe cross training for police who might be the first to arrive at a working fire – particularly about fire behaviour and understanding what happens when doors to a burning structure are breached. Indeed, East Gwillimbury and York Regional Police are already doing just that.

Whitby Chief David Speed, in his April 7 statement to the five-member jury – which will make non-binding recommendations when the inquest wraps up, likely next week – threw political caution to the wind, calling for mandatory sprinklers in all new residential construction.

East Gwillimbury Fire Chief Phil Dawson proposed a more conservative approach on Monday – focusing on education and early detection, asking that the jury consider recommending fire inspections whenever ownership of a home or tenants change, possibly through municipal bylaws.

"Sprinklers are a good idea but they're reactive," Dawson said. Indeed, he added, all firefighters – even those in suppression – should be involved in the first two lines of defence.

Both fire chiefs urged the jury to consider broader public education, to make recommendations that focus on reaching particular demographics and with strong messaging.

Earlier Monday, the Dunsmuir housekeeper of 12 years, Valerie Schmidt, testified that there was no smoke alarm on the main floor of the home and only one on the second storey, in the hallway outside the bedrooms. (There was an additional alarm in the basement but Schmidt wasn't aware.)

The fire on March 29, 2013, started in the laundry room, in a plugged vent to the outside, which, during renovations, had been reconfigured to go through the floor and along the basement ceiling, to the outside.

The purpose of questions by coroner's counsel about an oily substance in the laundry room area – linseed oil, perhaps – which Schmidt said she was unaware of, were not explained, the details likely to come later this week from representatives of the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management who investigated the incident.

Friday, the jury heard from Dunsmuir neighbour John Hems, who said he heard screaming from the home but no smoke alarms.

"The whole street," Hems said, "replaced their smoke alarms right after the fire."

Public education of the most tragic kind.
Written by Laura King
April 15, 2016, Toronto – Miscommunication during a 911 call placed by 19-year-old Robert Dunsmuir from his parents' burning home in East Gwillimbury on March 29, 2013, resulted in the fire-department dispatcher prematurely terminating the call.

As disturbing as that miscommunication might be, it had no impact on the outcome.

Hearing the young man's final words and his last breath on the 911 tape played for a coroner's jury on Thursday was gut wrenching. But the miscommunication about the nature of the call once it was transferred to the Richmond Hill Fire & Emergency Services dispatcher from a 911 call taker turned out to be moot.

The five-person coroner's jury heard last week in testimony from representatives of Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) – several are in court daily as observers – that without sprinklers, occupants have fewer than four minutes to escape a burning building before they succumb to smoke inhalation. Although the communication mix up may not have affected the outcome, training for 911 call takers about fire procedures, and mandatory training for fire dispatchers, is likely to be among the jury's recommendations.

York Regional Police 911 call taker Danielle Migueis answered Dunsmuir's cell-phone call at 5:29:35 a.m. Dunsmuir, his parents and his brother were trapped in the master bedroom of the burning two-storey home in the community of Sharon in East Gwillimbury. An investigation by the OFMEM determined that the fire originated in a plugged dryer vent and that the main floor smoke alarm was faulty.

"There's a fire at 72 Howard Ave.," Dunsmuir tells Migueis. The statement is clear on the digital audio recording, but, it was noted for the jury, background noise made it difficult to hear.

"Sorry, what address?"

"72 Howard Avenue, in Sharon."

"What's going on there?" Migueis asks.

"It's a fire. I just woke up in the middle of the night and can't see," Dunsmuir says, frantic and disoriented.

Migueis transfers the call to the Richmond Hill Fire dispatcher, but stays on the line. (Richmond Hill dispatches for East Gwillimbury and three other communities).

"Don't hang up, OK," Migueis says to Dunsmuir, calm and rational even though the call was the first of the sort she had experienced (911 call takers require no training to help people trapped in burning buildings). Of the more than 233,600 emergency calls a year in York region, structure fires with people trapped are extremely rare and are passed over to fire dispatch, the jury was told.

Richmond Hill Fire picks up the call. "Fire and emergency for what town?"

"Fire, he's at 72 Howard Avenue," Migueis tells the dispatcher.

"I can't breathe," Dunsmuir says to the fire dispatcher. "I have asthma."

"We're on our way," the fire dispatcher says.

"OK. So are we," Migueis says, indicating that police are en route, and at 5:30 a.m. the fire dispatcher hangs up, presumably believing he is sending trucks to a medical call, having heard Dunsmuir say only that he was asthmatic and having difficulty breathing.

"Sir. Hello? Hello?" Migueis says, still on the line and trying to communicate with Dunsmuir but getting no response.

Migueis – who was named York Regional Police call taker of the year in 2015 – calls back but gets no answer. She tries again.

"Hi," Dunsmuir says.

"Did you get out of the house?" Migueis asks. "OK, you've got to get out of the house."

"I don't know how," Dunsmuir says. "We are trapped in the upper floor.

"You don't know how?"

"No, we can't see and it's pitch black and everything."

Migueis asks how many people are in the house. "The four of us . . . and the dog," Dunsmuir says.

"I'm choking. I have asthma . . . I can't breathe. I can't breathe."

"Where are your parents?" Migueis asks.

"With us," Dunsmuir says. "Can you please . . . "

"Can you get to the door?"

"No."

"Hello? Sir? Can you guys get out the window? Sir? Hello?"

The line goes dead. Migueis calls again. No one picks up.

"It's not our obligation to call back if it's a fire call," Migueis told coroner's counsel Frank Giordano, explaining that once a call is transferred to fire or EMS it's the purview of the other agency. Calling back was just common sense, Migueis said;
she "just wanted them to get out."

Asked by Giordano to explain what happened when the phone went dead the first time, Migueis said, "I do believe the fire call taker may have hung up," which is standard procedure for a medical call.

Subsequent 911 calls from neighbours alerted dispatch to the fire, and according to the OFMEM investigation report, the first truck arrived in 12 minutes from the East Gwillimbury volunteer department.

Migueis was the only witness to testify Thursday. Lawyers for other parties with standing at the inquest had no questions for Migueis, who gave impeccably clear and deliberate testimony. Migueis was cross examined only by York Regional Police lawyer Jason Fraser, who outlined for the jury the hundreds of hours of training, testing and re-testing Migueis has completed and that are required, by law, for 911 call takers.

There are no similar adequacy regulations for fire dispatchers in Ontario, and no mandatory training provided through the OFMEM, although it has the authority to teach NFPA 1061, Professional Qualifications for Public Safety Telecommunications Personnel; the standard was developed with input from an Ontario group of communicators, and communicators have pushed for years for such training.

The inquest adjourned at mid-day Thursday, having no witnesses lined up to testify. The Richmond Hill Fire dispatcher was not on the original witness list distributed by coroner's counsel, lawyers having reached an agreed statement of facts about when, how and by what means the Dunsmuirs died, and the dispatcher's testimony was deemed unnecessary. The frenzy of activity in the courtroom yesterday afternoon may have indicated that has changed.

Six witnesses are to testify today – neighbours, police and firefighters.
Written by Laura King
April 12, 2016, Toronto – The coroner's inquest into seven fire fatalities that started March 29 and has focused thus far on the deaths of three teenagers in a Whitby apartment turns this week to the 2013 blaze that killed Kevin and Jennifer Dunsmuir and two of their sons. The proceedings, to this point, have been curious.

To summarize, Whitby Fire Chief David Speed, bizarrely, testified from notes provided by a former fire prevention inspector that landlord Andrew Strzelec had complied with an order to install fire-resistant drywall in a stairway – the apartment's only exit. There are no notes to that effect: Speed based his testimony on a conversation with the inspector; the inspector based his assumption of compliance on a conversation with the landlord. No one checked to ensure that the ordered renovations had, in fact, been completed, and it became clear after the fire that the drywall – necessary to create a proper fire separation between the upstairs and main-floor apartments – had never been installed.

The fire inspector, Wayne Bray, has not been called as a witness and no one I've spoken with seems to know why. Bray is not among the fire inspectors listed on the town's website. Coroner's counsel Frank Giordano has not yet replied to an email asking for an explanation.

The landlord's testimony was inconsistent, according to reports, and, in fact, photos of the building show that Strzelec, sometime after receiving approval for the ordered renovations, converted the house back into an illegal three-unit dwelling.

Yesterday, an experienced fire-protection engineer with the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) testified that the Whitby Fire Department misinterpreted the fire code and the small apartment should never have been approved as compliant – a rather damning statement from a senior staffer with the organization that helps fire departments interpret and understand the code.

Even more puzzling, perhaps, to the five-person jury, is the fact that the province requires no specific training for fire inspectors who, as Chief Speed testified last week, are considered assistants to the fire marshal; NFPA 1031 Levels 1 and 2 are recommended but not mandatory. Whitby, however, now requires its inspectors to have a three-year fire-protection diploma from a community college, the chief said.
There is, as Speed testified, no regulatory body for fire inspectors.

What's bugging me, though, is a statement Chief Speed made under questioning by coroner's counsel, about alternate means of egress, and whether the windows in the apartment were the type that would allow for escape if the exit – the stairway – was blocked.

"We didn't even look at that," said Speed who, as chief fire prevention officer, was Bray's supervisor, referring to the windows.

"Because," he said, "it met code."

In other words, the single, (un)renovated stairway exit was sufficient and the only escape route required.

Not so, according to OFMEM fire-protection engineer Christine Mak, who testified this week that the apartment was, in fact, required to have a second exit, because the windows were too small to allow for escape.

The testimony is damning – to the department, the province, the system.

And we're only part way through.
Written by Laura King
April 8, 2016, Toronto – It was apparent yesterday afternoon at the inquest into three fire fatalities in Whitby in 2012 that to be a chief in this province, it's necessary to have skin as thick as the tires on an aerial truck.

Whitby Fire Chief David Speed suppressed innuendo, accusations and inaccuracies lobbed by lawyers for the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management and the families of the three deceased teens – Benjamin Twiddy, 19, Marilee Towie, 17, and Holly Harrison, 18 – during a full day of testimony in a coroner's court on Thursday.

Politics clearly at play, the lawyer for the OFMEM, Claudia Brabazon, tried to trip up Chief Speed, to discredit his evidence – although it's not quite clear why.

The details and nuances are complex. Chief Speed was, in part, testifying from notes made by a Whitby fire inspector. The inspector told Speed – before he became chief, back when he headed the fire-prevention division – but did not write down the fact that the owner of the apartment in which the teens died had earlier complied with a fire-code inspection order, and the required work had been completed.

After the fire on April 29, 2012, it became clear that fireproof drywall had never been installed in the unit's stairwell as specified in the order, and the combustible wood panelling ignited along with carpet and wallpaper, blocking the teens' only way out. The three friends were found huddled under a living-room window, trying to shield themselves from the blaze that started when a towel caught fire and was tossed into the stairwell.

Given that the inspector, Wayne Bray who, strangely, has not been called as a witness, had made thorough notes about every other aspect of the case but none detailing his conversation with the landlord about the drywall, perhaps Mr. Bray and the landlord had not, in fact, discussed that issue, the lawyer said.

"Isn't it possible," Brabazon asked, "that the conversation never took place?"

"No," Chief Speed replied, without hesitation. "Mr. Bray told me that it took place and I believe him."

Still, it's curious that the chief, who kept his composure even after several hours on the stand and provided detailed evidence, testified from another's notes, hence, perhaps, the hard line by the lawyers. When asked, other parties involved with the inquest and some of their lawyers couldn't explain Mr. Bray's absence or Chief Speed's use of the inspector's notes.

Later, the OFM lawyer asked if the inspector should have taken the landlord's word given his blatant disregard for fire-code compliance before he was earlier fined for another violation.

"In the beginning [the landlord] was difficult but after he was charged he started to comply," Speed said. "I have a lot of trust in the inspectors . . . "

As one courtroom spectator put it, no good deed goes unpunished – in this case, the inspector having given the landlord the benefit of the doubt. Clearly, it was noted, it's crucial to go by the book regardless of political pressure to relax the rules for tax-paying property owners – do what's right, not what's popular, and, as is well known from the Elliot Lake Commission of Inquiry and other proceedings in Ontario, take precise, detailed notes, always.

The lawyer for the Town of Whitby clarified with Chief Speed that the municipality treats everyone equally – that, for example, landlords with a single conviction are not red flagged, targeted or profiled, as the OFM lawyer had suggested might have been appropriate in this case given some of the conditions in the apartment.

Those conditions, Chief Speed said – low ceilings, no sprinklers, extinguishers or fire escape (none of which is required) – are normal and are found in hundreds of similar apartments across the province.

Earlier, Chief Speed had provided jurors with his recommendations to consider: mandatory training for fire inspectors – who in Ontario are considered assistants to the fire marshal but for whom there is no required standardized provincial training; better public education; and – of course – sprinklers.

"In this case," Speed said, "and in about 80 other fires every year in Ontario, the three lines of defence did not work."

Sprinklers, Speed said, would likely have saved the lives of the teens, whose screams, and subsequent silence, were heard on the 911 tape played in the courtroom last week.

"Firefighters followed all practices and policies," Speed said. "Yet I struggle to find a recommendation to improve this, except this one; I urge the jury to recommend the installation of sprinklers in all new residential construction."

Given that earlier witnesses testified to a "textbook" response that took more than four minutes even though the fire hall was fewer than 300 metres down the street, and, as Speed told the inquest, Whitby has 104 suppression firefighters but just six fire-prevention officers, the recommendation is reasonable.

Thick skin indeed.
Written by Laura King
March 29, 2016, Toronto – It's coincidence that an inquest into seven fire fatalities, including four members of one family who died in a horrific house fire in East Gwillimbury, Ont., starts today, exactly three years after that awful incident.

The coroner's inquest was delayed six months for procedural reasons, which, to me, is code for the government didn't have its ducks in a row, and which is no wonder given the complexities of holding two inquests (sort of) simultaneously.

Technically, the inquest – which is scheduled to run eight to 10 weeks – is in two parts, which, apparently, is rather unusual but is necessary to accommodate lawyers' schedules and religious holidays, according to coroner's counsel Frank Giordano, who graciously provided as much detail in an email about the inquest as he was able to given that crucial documents such as the witness list still seemed fairly fluid late last week.

First, Dr. David Evans, a retired regional coroner and surgeon, and the five-person jury will hear about a fire in Whitby, Ont., on April 29, 2012 – almost four years ago – that killed three young people: Benjamin Twiddy, 19; Marilee Towie, 17; and Holly Harrison, 18. Some evidence introduced in that portion of the inquest – about, perhaps, fire behaviour when fresh oxygen is introduced into a burning structure – will likely be applicable to both incidents.

If your recollection of these seven fire fatalities is foggy – which is likely the case given the gap between the incidents and the inquest(s) – here's a refresher.

The three teens died in their second-storey Whitby apartment. They had called 911 from their cell phones. According to news reports, police arrived first and kicked in the door but couldn't reach the three friends – there was too much smoke, heat and fire. Two Whitby firefighters were awarded bravery medals for attempting to rescue the teens, who were found huddled together. The fire started when one of the teens used a towel to take something out of the oven. Reports indicate that the unit had working smoke alarms.

The Dunsmuir family also called 911, presumably from the upstairs master bedroom of their two-storey home in a small community called Sharon in the Town of East Gwillimbury (part of the Regional Municipality of York). Kevin Dunsmuir, 55, his wife Jennifer, 51 – who was mobility impaired after having had a stroke – and their two sons, Robert, 19, and Cameron, 16, may have been trapped in the bedroom. (A third son was away at university.) A report by the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal concluded that the fire started as a result of a clogged lint filter in the dryer on the main floor of the home. There was no working smoke alarm on the first floor. News reports said police arrived first and entered the home to try to reach the family, but couldn't.

There was lots of talk in news reports – and by the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association – after the East Gwillimbury fire about response times, automatic aid and levels of service.

I expect, though, at the inquest(s) we'll hear more about fire dynamics than response times given that the issue has settled down in the three years it has taken to get to this point, although I do find it bizarre that the inquest is happening in urban Toronto rather than in the rural part of York Region, where everyone is familiar with volunteer fire departments and understands that calling 911 does not elicit a three- or four-minute fire response.

The last fire-fatality inquest in Ontario, in 2012, explored the 2009 Muskoka Heights retirement-home fire in Orillia that killed four people; it resulted in mandatory, retroactive sprinklers and multiple other changes – including new legislation – to better protect seniors and other vulnerable occupants.

Few fire-service leaders or organizations are beating drums about sprinklers for residential structures, despite almost 100 fire deaths in Ontario last year, so I'm interested to see the direction in which lawyers take this proceeding.

It's not clear – at least publicly – whether the occupants in the Whitby apartment and the East Gwillimbury home died before or after police arrived.

I expect we'll know the answer to that fairly early on.


* Follow @FireinCanada on Twitter for live updates from the inquest today.
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