Editor's Blog
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?"


"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.
Written by Laura King
March 24, 2016, Toronto – Advocacy is a tough game; it requires patience, persistence, data, evidence-based analysis, time, and political savvy.

Kudos, then, to those who have worked so long and so hard to persuade Ottawa to restore its share of funding for HUSAR teams, as the Liberal government did in Tuesday’s budget – $15.5 million over five years.

There are four HUSAR teams – Vancouver, Calgary, Manitoba and Toronto –although I’m hearing there’s talk of restoring the collapsed Halifax team and creating a new team in Quebec. Each team requires about $1.1 million to run annually, including equipment.

Which means that for the four HUSAR teams to function, provincial and municipal money will continue to be required to supplement the $400,000 to $600,000 per team, per year, that will be provided by Ottawa.

Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney, who has been instrumental in discussions with Public Safety Canada about HUSAR since the Conservative government announced the cut in 2012, says while the teams are pleased with and excited about the restored funding, Ottawa’s contribution is “a bargain given the expertise, readiness and commitment” of the highly trained team members. What’s more, McKearney says, all three levels of government need to participate in funding and policy to sustain the response capabilities.

McKearney has scheduled a conference call in early April with Public Safety Canada and the team leaders to discuss next steps and details, which are sparse.

Should a Halifax team be reinstated, and a Quebec team developed, the $15.5 million would be further stretched. Although it’s not clear even to those fire-service leaders who have been involved in discussions with Ottawa if new teams are indeed being considered, the budget certainly alludes to expansion.

“Budget 2016 provides $15.5 million over five years, starting in 2016-17, to restore funding to heavy urban search and rescue task forces in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Manitoba, as well as to work with provinces to expand this capacity in underserved regions,” the document says.

While the restored federal funding is certainly a win, the advocacy required to ensure a national HUSAR response strategy, continued and consistent training and equipment, and ongoing federal, provincial and municipal support is daunting.


As expected and as promised by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Tuesday’s budget also includes a compensation benefit for firefighters, police officers and paramedics who are permanently injured or die in the line of duty, although the initiative merited just a single sentence.

Even the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs neglected to mention the program in a press release this morning hailing the HUSAR funding and Ottawa’s $143 million for enhancements to rail safety and transportation of dangerous goods, and noting the development of a national action plan for PTSD.

The PTSD program, too, seems to be a bit of a mystery.

“We look forward to hearing the details of the government’s plans,” CAFC president Paul Boissonneault said of the national PTSD strategy.

I find it frustrating that Ottawa (and Ontario, which has just launched a PTSD prevention plan for employers) is focusing specifically on post-traumatic stress disorder given that experts tell us anxiety, depression and substance abuse comprise the bulk of mental illness – even among first responders. Fire-service leaders made this clear to Goodale during a roundtable in Regina late last year, so let’s hope it’s simply semantics at play.

Certainly all the first-responder initiatives in the budget are wins given the gargantuan efforts required to educate and convince politicians and bureaucrats of their value. The devil may be in the details.
Written by Laura King
Feb. 16, 2016, Toronto – We passed. All 21 of us in last week's Road to Mental Readiness course in Mississauga stood – or rather circulated, standing still is bad – and taught entire modules of the eight-hour R2MR leadership program on Friday, after four days of intense learning.

We were critiqued (constructively, of course), sized up, roundly encouraged, and graded (on fives pages worth of criteria!) by the masters who had led us all week.

And now that we all know the massive R2MR manual inside out, we're ready to take the show on the road, so to speak.

Piece of cake? Not quite. It's easy to stand – rather, circulate – in front of peers and talk about what you know, firefighting techniques or, in my case, social media or coverage of the Elliot Lake mall collapse; not so much an overwhelming volume of mostly new and, often, sensitive information.

Last Monday I couldn't spell amygdala, let alone identify the almond-shaped fear receptors in the brain connected with the fight, flight or freeze response.

I couldn't have told you that fire-service leaders should shield, sense and support their crews, that we should all use the Big 4 – goal setting, visualization, self-talk and tactical breathing (which was employed a fair bit in advance of Friday's presentations), or that there's a mental-health continuum to identify when to help colleagues.

I knew about PTSD but not PTSS – post traumatic stress syndrome.

I didn't realize that most mental illness among first responders is anxiety, depression or substance abuse and that cumulative stress at home and at work is the worst.

I learned about stigma and moral stressors and keeping our rain buckets empty so they don't overflow when things get rough. (How's the water level in your rain bucket?)

We laughed – a lot (mostly at trainer and retired cop Sergio Falzi's myriad anecdotes). We listened more. Those who felt comfortable told their own stories of treatment, time off work, challenges getting back on the trucks.

We learned that the earlier people living with mental illness get help, the sooner they come back to the halls. And, we were told, for so many people, work is everything – who they are, how they identify, what keeps them going.

We discussed the 24-hour shift; maybe seeing colleagues just seven times a month isn't ideal after all?

We memorized steps in the ad hoc incident review – acknowledge, inform and respond, or AIR – which a particularly perceptive member of our group (who happens to write a blog) likened to the first line of defence to bring some firefighting terminology to the program.

We were told from the outset that R2MR is evidence based – that it has been evaluated by more than 100,000 users, and it works.

R2MR is a tool to help fire departments build awareness and resilience; there are others. Find a program that works for your department and your people – and use it.

The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs announced a partnership with the Mental Health Commission of Canada on July 30 to roll out R2MR, and started training two weeks ago – a pretty remarkable timeline for anything in fire let alone a mental-health training program.

I heard from Sergio-the-retired-cop on Sunday, asking me to include a word of thanks to the OAFC for bringing him and R2MR to Ontario firefighters – he even admitted to enjoying the (seemingly never ending!) cop-firefighter banter, despite being outnumbered 21 to one.

As Sergio reminded me in the email – our brains do not differentiate between physical and mental pain, and neither should we. Not bad for a copper, eh.

Let's get the show on the road.

Written by Laura King
Feb. 10, 2016, Mississauga, Ont. – We've learned a lot about anxiety in two days of Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) training (read my first blog), mostly because we're all experiencing it given the magnitude of material to absorb before we are tested later this week.

And by tested, I mean a written quiz Thursday, then a 25-minute presentation – with a partner – on Friday, on one of the 11 modules of the massive R2MR training manual.

So, as we've been taught to do to manage stress, I'm setting a goal, visualizing, self-talking (which is pretty much constant anyway) and using tactical breathing to get through to Friday at noon. (There, I've just answered one test question!)

OK, I'm exaggerating a bit; the course material is being taught brilliantly (buttering up the instructors?) and rather humorously, by trainers from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, in digestible bits, and we started practice teaching yesterday so that by Friday we'll all be comfortable with our units.

Still, some in the course are better in front of a room than others – fire chiefs, deputies, captains and firefighters here from Whitchurch-Stouffville, North Bay, Burlington, Mississauga, Paisley, Orillia and a handful of other municipalities, for example, are better than, say, editors of fire magazines.

We've learned a ton about stress this week – organizational stress, personal stress, operational stress (test question 2?). Two things have stuck in my mind: that stress comes and goes – I expect to experience it any minute on the drive to Mississauga on Hwy 403 but once I reach the Garry W. Morden Centre, it will have dissipated; and that cumulative stress from calls, work-life balance and stuff (or that other s word) leads to exhaustion, which leads to burnout, "which can be a significant but underappreciated problem with firefighters."

Perhaps the most surprising revelation so far is the fact that there are no Canadian studies – yet – that point to higher levels of mental illness or PTSD among first responders than among the rest of the population; mind you, mental illness (not just PTSD, but anxiety, depression, substance abuse) affects one in five Canadians and, therefore, one in five responders, but organizations are now tracking responder suicides, media are reporting them, and we're all hyper-aware of them.

Here's what else we've learned: people get back to work sooner if they receive treatment early – so it's important for managers to shield (help to prevent), sense (observe, ask questions) and support (provide resources to) their employees. (Another test question – you see where I'm going with this?)

How can they do so? By using the ad-hoc incident review, or AIR, to acknowledge, inform and respond to firefighters who may need help.

OK, I'm feeling better now that I wrote all that without looking at the 500-plus page manual or my notes, so I'm off to Mississauga to no-doubt embarrass myself several more times in front of my (wonderfully supportive, articulate and confident) group before I master the material.

Stress, of course, is relative. Today, I may sweat through my socks but no one gets hurt, no property is damaged or lost, and everyone goes home.
Written by Laura King
Feb. 9, 2016, Mississauga – The best line I heard yesterday during Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) training came from the table behind me: "The only way to change things in the fire service," a classmate said, "is through peer pressure."

There were nods all around.

Twenty-one students are in the R2MR program this week, offered through the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and run by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Blogger Jennifer Grigg, a volunteer firefighter who has experienced some of what we're learning about, took the course last week; my perspective is different.

I have no experiences to share about calls involving children or gruesome extrications, fire fatalities or the cumulative stress from a 20-plus-year career as a first responder.

But as I mentioned to the group during Monday morning's introductions, people tell me things; I'm trained to listen and observe, to get interview subjects to open up, to ask probing questions so I can write detailed stories.

Problem is, I have no idea what to say to people who tell me they are living with – not suffering from – mental illness (see, we're learning already).

Another interesting takeaway from Monday's session was the absence of the phrase occupational stress injury; the mental-health commission dropped the term from its parlance because, according to master trainer Sergio Falzi (a retired cop in a room full of firefighters, which makes for some entertaining moments), it's impossible to separate work stress from home stress.

Remember the onion analogy from the movie Shrek? "Ogres are like onions," Shrek tells Donkey (a sentence I never thought I'd type!). "Onions have layers; ogres have layers."

Well, turns out stress is more like onion soup, French onion soup, to be precise; onion-filled broth with a slice of burnt toast and a mess of gooey cheese, and it's impossible to separate one ingredient from the other.

We talked a lot about stigma – think about the words prejudice and discrimination and whether the former can exist without the latter – and statistics: by 2030 depression will the leading cause of disability claims worldwide.

We watched compelling video of an OPP officer who ignored his symptoms for years then crashed and and burned (figuratively); he had been afraid of what his peers would think. Familiar, eh?

"Through my fear I neglected to address that trauma the same way I would [have addressed] getting a knife to the kidney," he said, in other words, as an injury.

We also learned that despite what many in fire think, it's not up to human-resources departments to deal with employees' mental illness – everyone in the hall or department has a role to play.

Then we got into the nitty gritty – resilience, goal setting, visualization, tactical breathing, and the ad-hoc incident review that's a critical part of R2MR.

Even after eight full hours, though, I was still thinking about the first few minutes of the day – the obligatory ice-breaker exercise during which we were asked to stand in groups according to our vacation-destination choices, then our food favourites (sweet chocolate or salty chips!), and, lastly, our pet preferences.

In the end, half the group ended up on either side the room – as logic dictates would be the case.

Finally, we were asked to place ourselves at one end of the room if we knew someone living with mental illness, the other end if we didn't.

One half of the room filled up; the other half emptied. And, thus, we all had something in common.

Hook, line and sinker, the instructors had made their point, and we sat down for the next 7.5 hours to learn – in Falzi's words – to sell cars to people who want to buy pick-up trucks, to change a culture, shift a paradigm.

The mental health commission is teaching R2MR to more than 250,000 emergency-services workers in the next 12 to 18 months. Those trainers will, in turn, teach their departments and others.

As Falzi explained (the man has a gift for analogies), R2MR creators knew flood gates would open once police and fire started to understand that mental illness is a injury that can be treated, managed and, in so many cases, healed.

"It's not a flood gate," he said, "it's a tsunami."

A tsunami of peer pressure for which your department better be ready.
Written by Laura King
Feb. 8, 2016, Toronto – It's a cliché, but it sure seems as if in Ontario, at least, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Three examples.

1. Four fire fatalities (and multiple injuries) in 24 hours in Toronto, three of them in a five-storey, Toronto Community Housing building inhabited by people 60 years and older; the other in a separate apartment fire.

The seniors building, according to Toronto Deputy Chief Jim Jessop, "fell through the cracks" when the province mandated in 2013 – after a slew of deaths in retirement homes – that certain facilities be retrofitted with sprinklers.

Which is an interesting way to put it: a cynical blogger might surmise that "fell through the cracks" is a euphemism given the volume of community housing units, the costs associated with retrofitting and political correctness. (Jessop had been instrumental in the retrofitting initiative as a deputy chief in Niagara Falls and London before moving to the Office of the Fire Marshal, then Toronto Fire Services.)

The Toronto building is 25 years old; when it was built, sprinklers were not required in all areas.

The province can enact legislation requiring any type of building to be sprinklered; it has chosen not to.

2. It came as no surprise that the Ontario Ministry of Labour laid no charges against a trainer under whose watch a student drowned during a swift-water exercise in February 2015; the ministry has a year in which to do so.

In the case of Adam Brunt, a young, aspiring firefighter, and trainer Terry Harrison, the Occupational Health and Safety Act didn't apply because there was no employer-employee relationship.

That another student died under Harrison's tutelage in Point Edward, Ont., in 2010 had no bearing – Harrison was acquitted of those OH&S charges because, technically, the fire chief, not the trainer, was the supervisor of record; the municipality paid a fine.

Police months ago determined that no criminal charges would be laid. But as I said a year ago, how many students have to die before the training industry is regulated and simple standards become mandatory? More than two, apparently.

Sure, it's complicated; private training companies do not fall under the purview of the Office of the Fire Marshal, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities or – we now know for sure –the Ministry of Labour.

But consider: both deaths happened at the same time of year, during the same type of training, conducted by the same trainer.

That, alone should warrant a thorough examination, but given the delay in the inquest into fire fatalities in East Gwillimbury and Whitby, which happened three and four years ago respectively, and the politically motivated timing of the release of the Elliot Lake inquiry recommendations, I'm not holding my breath.

3. You're all familiar with the phrase local needs and circumstances.

So are the municipal politicians in a tiny region of Ontario, the Municipality of the United Townships of Head, Clara and Maria, which is home to about 230 people and, therefore, a very small tax base.

In fact, there are so few homes and buildings in the municipality off Highway 17, the Trans-Canada, west of Ottawa and east of North Bay, that there's no fire department – there is a municipal fire-safety officer, but no chief, no trucks, no suppression firefighters, no extrication.

Indeed, there hasn't been a fire service since 2008, when council rescinded the bylaw that created it, and sold the equipment as surplus. Simply, the cost outweighed the risk.

Which is a problem for the Ministry of Transportation because it owns and operates the province's highways, including the 30-kilometre stretch through Head, Clara and Maria.

As is the case in most other provinces, the ministry pays fire departments to respond to collisions on provincial highways and perform extrications. But where there are no fire departments, the ministry – which builds and maintains the highway – has relied on neighbouring departments to do so, in this case Laurentian Hills and Deep River.

As Laurentian Hills Fire Chief Kevin Waito told the Ottawa Sun after a collision on Jan. 15 to which the department responded, then was called back, "It's not really every other municipality in Renfrew County's problem to look after them."

Provincial police and ambulance services respond but fire, of course, is a municipal responsibility, paid for with municipal tax dollars.

Bit of a conundrum.
Written by Laura King
Feb. 2, 2016, Toronto – There has been a lot of chatter about first-responder mental health since #BellLetsTalk raised more than $6 million last Wednesday: both the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the Ontario government have made announcements about partnerships and plans.

Talk is great. Action is better.

Yesterday, in Mississauga, the first group of 20 firefighters and fire officers (career and volunteer) from across Ontario started a week-long train-the-trainer session run by the Mental Health Commission of Canada – the now-familiar and lauded R2MR program, or Road to Mental Readiness.

"It's going to change people's lives," said one student, a longtime volunteer firefighter who has, by times, struggled with anxiety and depression and, therefore, has first-hand perspective.

"Sounds dramatic," she said in an email last night, "but the right tools in the right hands will help so many people. I'm very proud to be part of this."

Already in 2016 four first responders and one member of the military have died by suicide, according to the Tema Conter Memorial Trust website.

In May, members of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs passed a resolution to institute mental-health training and education. In July, the OAFC announced a partnership with the mental-health commission. Training started Monday; the program will immediately roll out to departments across Ontario. The uptake has been overwhelming – there are four chiefs in the course this week, several officers, firefighters and municipal staff. A second course runs next week (I'm sitting in).

Meantime, the CAFC announced last week a separate agreement with the mental-health commission. I wasn't clear on the details from the brief press release but CAFC president Paul Boissonneault clarified in a phone interview that the association will neither develop nor deliver training; rather it will connect interested provincial chiefs' associations or fire departments with the commission.

In addition, CAFC representatives participated last week in a roundtable on PTSD in Regina, organized by Public Safety Canada. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has been tasked by the prime minister to create a national action plan on PTSD – lots more talk.

And, yesterday in Toronto, Labour Minister Kevin Flynn spoke, briefly, at the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) annual health and safety seminar. The OPFFA, which campaigned for the Liberals in the 2014 provincial election, has been instrumental in the government's introduction of presumptive legislation and had hoped the minister would at least allude to the addition of PTSD to the list of illnesses covered. Flynn, instead, focused on prevention, announcing a four-point strategy that, essentially, and interestingly, aligns with the OAFC's position on occupational stress injuries.

Flynn did commit, I'm told, to reviewing the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act once the house resumes sitting (although that bit is not included in the online press release), "to ensure that first responders who become ill from occupational stress injuries have the help, support and treatment they require absent of barriers." I'm not quite clear on that, either.

I wasn't in Toronto for Flynn's announcement but OPFFA president Carmen Santoro said later by email that firefighters recognize the importance of prevention and education, but want more.

"We respect that, but we expect this government to enact legislation to recognize PTSD in first responders and to provide immediate care and help to our members," he said.

So, the CAFC has developed plans and partnerships; the union wants presumptive legislation similar to that in Manitoba and Alberta; the OAFC supports preventative measures rather than compensation, in line with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (because, of course, the municipalities pay for the claims under presumptive legislation, and would have to do so for all first responders, not just firefighters) and has begun training firefighters and officers to teach other firefighters and officers about resilience and mental-health awareness through the R2MR program.

All of this is happening in the context of minimum, standardized requirements for hiring firefighters. That's another blog for another day but, if resilience is the new buzzword then, just like physical testing, there ought to be systems in place to evaluate a potential recruit's ability to cope with the job, and intense training from the get go to build on those skills (another added cost for municipalities).

As for firefighters already in the system – 106,000 of them – most hired or signed on long before #BellLetsTalk or awareness of PTSD, it’s time to take action.

Just down the road from me, in Mississauga's Garry W. Morden Centre, even longtime chief officers who have been there and done that have embraced the training.

"As R2MR spreads across the province, we will develop awareness, resiliency and a culture that supports one another," said one deputy in this week's program, "ending the stigma surrounding mental health."

We're already talking. Let's do this.
Written by Laura King
Nov. 19, 2015, Niagara Falls, Ont. – I don't think Matt Pegg quite scared the daylights out of delegates to the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) midterm meeting during his president's address Wednesday morning, but he certainly got their attention with that six-letter word the fire service loves to hate: change.

By a show of hands, about one-third of the 180 chief fire officers in the room will retire within five years. Everyone has a succession plan, right?

Other fear factors?

Government: Liberal majorities in Toronto and Ottawa, which has considerably altered the OAFC's (and CAFC's) government-relations strategy.

The Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM), led, temporarily we're assured, by an OPP inspector whose mandate is to shake things up, rock the boat, clean house, streamline – choose your cliché.

Taxpayers, who are tired of hearing about firefighters sleeping in the halls and having $500,000 trucks respond to medicals. "Is the public love affair with the fire service over?" Pegg asked, rhetorically.

And jet packs. Pegg isn't known for levity, but his PowerPoint slide showing a fire officer in Dubai with a $150,000 jet pack to be used in high-rise fires was certainly an entertaining diversion.

All of which was interesting given the lengthy roundtable sessions Tuesday at which issues such as recruitment-and-retention incentives, platooning in volunteer halls, daytime coverage, adequacy standards (there's a can of worms!), cancer prevention (do your firefighters have two sets of gear?) and myriad labour-relations issues were dissected, discussed, debated and determined to be crucial to maintaining vibrant and healthy departments.

With the focus on doing things differently it was no surprise when interim Fire Marshal Ross Nichols showed up in a suit (not a uniform), backpack slung over his shoulder, spoke for three minutes following a preamble by Matt Torigian, the deputy minister of community safety, then opened the floor to questions.

Interestingly, Torigian acknowledged the chiefs' frustration over the pace of change – or lack thereof – within the OFMEM, and with policies and procedures (such as, I thought, the review of the provincial incident management system as recommended by Elliot Lake Commissioner Paul Belanger). "Bureaucracy," Torigian mused, tends to move slowly.

And while it was rather amusing to have two cops on the stage – Torigian was police chief in Waterloo, Ont. – given the number of fire chiefs in the room who had traded guns for hoses (their phrase, not mine), Nichols and Torigian were frank, knew the issues and the problems, and seemed fully aware of the angst among chief fire officers over standards and training and support and communication from the OFMEM.

Perhaps the 45-minute presentation/Q&A was the feel-good session fire chiefs needed after years of frustration with the OFM, essentially since Bernie Moyle retired in 2006 after 16 years as fire marshal.

There were some blunt comments from the floor – about the mass exodus from the OFMEM, about chaos in the office, the lack of support, the absence of communication.

There were also tough questions – about the status of the Fire Marshal's Public Safety Council, which no one seems to understand ("It's my council," Nichols acknowledged, and promised to deal with it), about communication, which Nichols said would – and already has – changed, about the Ontario Fire College and how to keep it accessible to volunteers given the government's commitment to full cost recovery.

While neither Torigian nor Nichols had many well-developed answers given the fire marshal's matter of weeks on the job, they told fire chiefs what they wanted to hear: they understand the challenges, they are listening, they will work with the OAFC and chiefs across the province.

Change indeed.
Written by Laura King
Nov. 17, 2015, Niagara Falls, Ont. – Accountability; to most of us, it means systems and boards and tags and making sure everyone goes home.
Written by Laura King
Nov. 10, 2015, Toronto – It was purely happenstance that the CBC's Fifth Estate aired its unbalanced report on sexism in the fire service Friday night while female firefighters from across Canada were in Mississauga hauling hoses and cutting cars – training, networking and celebrating successes.

The network's venerable news-magazine missed the story; it featured old, well-documented cases of isolated, serious abuses but failed to mention the herculean – and in many cases, successful – efforts of myriad women and men in departments across the country to change fire-hall culture.

As a deputy chief with Canada's largest department said to me yesterday about the type of behaviour discussed in the episode, "It's just not tolerated."

Friday's broadcast (you can see it here) was sensational – full of clichés, cheesy video and ominous music.

There is no question that there is sexism in fire. And boardrooms. And government. But the fire service would be well within its rights to question the CBC's lack of balance and its failure to mention the progressive programs or talk to women who are thriving as firefighters, captains, training officers, deputy chiefs, chiefs.

Reporter Mark Kelly provided little context and nary a word about the work every fire department I can think of has done or is doing to educate and prevent discrimination and harassment among its members, save a single sentence about Richmond, B.C., changing its culture after incidents a decade ago and Ottawa Chief Gerry Pingitore acknowledging that leaders need to give members better tools to deal with issues when they are reported.

As far as I can tell, the story – previewed all over CBC's platforms last week – came and went with little notice.

So why mention it here?

Because as much work as the fire service has done to diversify – which we all know is challenging because few women and minorities apply for firefighting jobs – there seems to be a perception among some outsiders that all fire departments are bastions of white maleness, rude locker-room banter and shenanigans that females can't abide, and that women don't have the gumption to report harassment when it does happen. Clearly there's some work to be done to educate more taxpayers (the same taxpayers who love their CBC) about successful women in fire.

Indeed, the CBC focused on a well-documented case in Fort St. James, B.C., where former fire chief Rob Bennett was convicted for sexually harassing three female volunteer firefighters, and jailed (he's appealing). Absolutely, it took too long for justice to be served and by then the women had quit the department and had endured taunting in the community. But was it a fire-service problem, or an individual's problem that happened to happen in a fire department?

Certainly, there have been harassment cases in other Canadian fire departments, and firefighters – even officers – have lost their jobs. And certainly a bunch of men in close quarters can be downright disgusting should they be allowed to get away with such behaviour. But, as I keep noting in discussions about this issue, a gaggle of women can be as catty and crude as their differently chromosomed counterparts, given the opportunity.

The point, as one of the former firefighters on the Fifth Estate noted, is that fire halls, like banks and public works departments and insurance companies are places of work in which such behaviour should not be tolerated. And, for the most part, it isn't.

So why the Fifth Estate chose to seek out women who had bad experiences – some as far back as 1995 – parade them in front of cameras, make them cry, and provide not a shred of evidence for viewers that the fire service come a long way in the last 10 years, is beyond me.

Yes, there are bad apples (I wanted to use another word that starts with the letter A but that would be rude). In every profession. In every office, newsroom, hospital, factory, fire hall.

But the CBC missed the point.

I have heard as much about diversity and inclusion at conferences and fire-service events in the last decade as I have about nozzles and hoses and trucks and leadership and cancer and presumptive legislation and PTSD. I have heard fire chiefs share ideas to attract more women and minorities to their halls; I have listened to consultants and studied surveys in which firefighters of both genders have reported harassment by their peers or superiors, and witnessed the changes implemented in those department. I have been to four of the five Fire Service Women Ontario conferences and watched incredibly impressive firefighters and officers speak, train and mentor younger firefighters.

Kelly said at the beginning of the program that, "There remains a perception that women simply can't cut it, that they're not strong enough, tough enough to wear the uniform."

I don't know whose perception that is – Kelly never said. Clearly, it's a generalization that no longer holds true.

Because it's 2015.

Written by Laura King
Oct. 29, 2015, Toronto - It’s always good when like-minded people get together and do something spectacular.
Written by Laura King
Oct. 19, 2015, Toronto – Politics. Like you, I'll be watching closely this evening, probably on CBC. But it's not Stephen Harper or Justin Trudeau I want to talk about – although I will note that there was barely a word from either of them, or Mr. Mulcair, during the 11-week campaign about public safety.

Rather, the politics of fire – more specifically, fire chiefs – is on my mind today.

Last week, the fire chief on Salt Spring Island, B.C., was let go; no reason was given. Two weeks ago the chief in Corner Brook, N.L., was told his job was redundant. Fire chiefs in Oakville, Caledon, Midland, Middlesex Centre, Norwich, Port Hope and Amherstberg, Ont., Prince George, B.C., and Prince Albert, Sask., have left their jobs. There are others – the chief and deputy in Chestermere, Alta., gone, a couple of weeks ago, and quietly, I might add.

Some have resigned rather than endure public humiliation.

So, what's up?

Politics. Perception. Personality clashes – with the mayor or council or the CAO. Labour versus management. Witch hunts. You name it.

There are, of course, two (or more) sides to every story but certainly, in some cases, the chiefs have taken the fall.

I'm not privy to the details of each circumstance (I do know the minutia of some situations, although I won't divulge here for obvious reasons) but it seems to me that there's a common factor in many of the departures – integrity: chiefs unwilling to cut corners, compromise safety for firefighters or taxpayers, bite their tongues when hostile community groups or firefighter associations hijack the agenda.

That's politics.

The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and labour lawyers have advised chief officers for years (since Richard Boyes left Oakville) to protect themselves – to negotiate exit packages before they take the job. That doesn’t help chiefs who have been around for a while (Neville Wheaton had been chief in Corner Brook since 2001 and Tom Bremner in Salt Spring since 2009), but it’s a solid recommendation.

Save your emails and your performance reviews, don't put anything in print you don't want to appear in the local paper, operate by the book . . . you all know this.

Most importantly, preserve your integrity.

Because, if you look around, many of these chiefs who have been fired or dismissed or let go or resigned are fire chiefs or big wigs somewhere else now, or they're being head hunted.

In Ontario, CAOs – particularly in smaller municipalities – seem to come and go. I have no idea if this happens in public works or parks and rec or planning departments. It doesn't matter. It's happening to fire chiefs.

So, as you vote today and watch the results this evening, think about politics and integrity – two words that perhaps shouldn't be juxtaposed in a sentence about the federal election but have become reality for the fire service.
Written by Laura King
Oct. 13, 2015, Winnipeg – I'm in Winnipeg this week. Oh come on! Winnipeg is the City of Opportunity, according to its website (who knew?!) and while it's not exactly a sexy destination, I'm excited.

First, I get to teach delegates to the Manitoba Disaster Management Conference how to work with – rather than against – media in an emergency (more on that in a minute); and I get to see Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer for what I expect will be the last time in a while given his recently announced retirement.

It's coincidental that Officer is presenting on the Algo Centre mall collapse, the response to it and the inquiry into it on Wednesday, given that Thursday is the deadline for the Ontario government and other agencies to respond to the report by Commissioner Paul Belanger.

Belanger released his 34 inquiry recommendations a year ago Oct. 15, key among them mandatory incident command, mandatory after-action reports and restored federal funding for HUSAR teams.

The report, you'll recall – two volumes totalling almost 1,400 pages with part 2 focusing on the response – was relentless in its criticism of provincial operations supporting the municipal emergency. (It was very clear, however, that the commissioner had no issue with the operation and conduct of the Elliot Lake Fire Department.)

"In my view," Belanger said "the Ontario emergency response system, particularly in the area of urban search and rescue, is in need of an overhaul."

I don't exactly have an in with the Ontario government (surprise, surprise!), so I can't say for sure what's happening in the bowels of Queen's Park, but I know there are committees and sub-committees trying to wrestle the massive Ontario incident management doctrine into a more functional system that works for career, composite and volunteer departments.

It's frustrating though, all this waiting. The government clearly recognized that the provincial incident management system and other processes didn't work well in Elliot Lake. We know this because it said in November 2013, in its final submission to the commissioner, that it would review IMS, figure out how the HUSAR team and the OPP's specialized search and rescue team – called UCRT – could train together, and improve communication among agencies. That's almost two years ago. And today we have . . . nothing. (I'm told that HUSAR and UCRT worked in the same building during an exercise earlier this year in Windsor, Ont., but not on the same floor and not exactly together.)

I'm pretty sure I'm not on the list of people with whom anything the government has to distribute on Thursday – should it even meet the deadline – will be shared; presumably there will be internal reviews and what not before anything changes publicly. But I'll try to find out and keep you posted.

Meantime, I'm pretty sure federal funding for HUSAR is about as likely as a Conservative majority come Oct. 19 – but perhaps things will change if there's a new party in power.

As for media training, you all know that in Elliot Lake the fact that two women were in the rubble – and were likely killed almost immediately – was initially kept from reporters; this decision fuelled inaccurate reporting and speculation that threw townspeople into a tizzy and, ultimately, led to phase 2 of the inquiry.

Which is why teaching emergency managers how to deal with reporters is a critical part of the process.

Thursday afternoon, with Canadian Firefighter columnist and Winnipeg firefighter/paramedic Jay Shaw – who has been seconded to management to work on special projects – I'm part of a group taking conference delegates through a tabletop exercise that includes three media segments. I won't disclose details until later but it's a very thorough and challenging scenario that will push delegates to use incident management training, develop an incident action plan, think quickly and deal with some interesting social media messaging.

Sometime during the conference – remarkably, there are 460 registered delegates! – I'm catching up with Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service Chief John Lane, whom I saw only briefly in Victoria at the Canadian chiefs conference last month. I have lots of questions for the chief about fire/paramedic services given the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association's fire-medic proposal.

I'm also looking forward to Friday; after the conference ends, I'm heading to the Fort Garry Fire Trucks plant with president Rich Suche to take photos for our November apparatus-showcase issue and learn more about building pumpers, tankers, aerials and rescues – in the City of Opportunity!

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