Editor's Blog
Written by Laura King
June 5, 2015, Toronto – I'm becoming quite fond of the left coast. And for good reason! Six of our columnists are from beautiful British Columbia, and I will see them all next week at the BC Fire Expo and Fire Chiefs Association of BC (FCABC) conference in Penticton.

This trip was not on the agenda but with two weeks notice I managed to find a room and a flight that arrives in the Okanagan Saturday afternoon, with time to spare for some sightseeing (wine tasting?) before the trade show opens Sunday.

Columnists/chiefs Dave Balding, Tom Bremner, Tom DeSorcy, Gord Shreiner and Keith Stecko, and Deputy Chief Arjuna George, will be in Penticton. As will blogger Les Karpluk and – I'm told, by special invitation from FCABC president Tim Pley – Grand Falls-Windsor Chief Vince MacKenzie, also a columnist. I hope to see regular magazine contributors Steve Sorensen and Len Garis too.

Remarkably, Shreiner, Stecko, George, Karpluk and MacKenzie are speaking at the conference, as is Richmond Hill, Ont., Chief Steve Kraft, a former columnist, and Shayne Mintz, who writes NFPA Impact and is on what seems to be a perpetual nation-wide speaking tour!

All of which, to me, speaks to the depth of our magazines and the issues our writers tackle every month.

The Fire Fighting in Canada/Canadian Firefighter presence in Penticton also presents a bit of a conundrum: some columnists are speaking concurrently – Vince MacKenzie and Gord Shreiner are doing a session on marketing your fire department at the same time as Shayne Mintz's aptly titled, "You're the fire chief – what can you tell me about residential sprinklers?" It seems I need a clone, or perhaps a drone (watch for July cover story on unmanned aerial vehicles!).

The FCABC has done solid work in the last few years – its fire-services liaison group report, "Transforming the Fire/Rescue Service," led to new minimum training standards. It has hosted brainstorming sessions with fire chiefs and CAOs – a bit of a radical concept that is getting rave reviews. It is working with partner agencies and organizations to promote the smoke-alarm campaign "We won't rest until you install and test."

This FCABC conference will be my fourth in eight years – Kelowna in 2007, Nanaimo in 2009, and Victoria in 2014. I didn't know a soul in Kelowna. Not surprising to those of you who have met Hope Fire Chief Tom DeSorcy, he took me under his wing. A few years later, at the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) conference in St. John, N.B., in 2010, I introduced Tom and Vince, the now-famous Volunteer Vision duo. I swear it was as if they'd been separated at birth! (As an aside, the three of us are presenting Volunteer Vision – LIVE! – a rollicking, bear pit session, at the CAFC conference in September in . . . Victoria!).

My point? A lot of good comes from conferences. Seeing our writers often and knowing them well helps me better understand and edit their columns and the issues they dissect. When conference delegates see us all together – we often do a get-together and photo session – they ask how they can be part of what we do. I know this is a shameless plug and a little lighter than recent blog offerings about fire marshals and unflattering reports about the fire service, but it's Friday and I'm going to picturesque Penticton and, at least for a few days, I'm adopting the laid-back B.C. attitude! In between conference sessions, of course. 
Written by Laura King
June 5, 2015, Toronto – I'm becoming quite fond of the left coast. And for good reason! Six of our columnists are from beautiful British Columbia, and I will see them all next week at the BC Fire Expo and Fire Chiefs Association of BC (FCABC) conference in Penticton.

This trip was not on the agenda but with two weeks notice I managed to find a room and a flight that arrives in the Okanagan Saturday afternoon, with time to spare for some sightseeing (wine tasting?) before the trade show opens Sunday.

Columnists/chiefs Dave Balding, Tom Bremner, Tom DeSorcy, Gord Shreiner and Keith Stecko, and Deputy Chief Arjuna George, will be in Penticton. As will blogger Les Karpluk and – I'm told, by special invitation from FCABC president Tim Pley – Grand Falls-Windsor Chief Vince MacKenzie, also a columnist. I hope to see regular magazine contributors Steve Sorensen and Len Garis too.

Remarkably, Shreiner, Stecko, George, Karpluk and MacKenzie are speaking at the conference, as is Richmond Hill, Ont., Chief Steve Kraft, a former columnist, and Shayne Mintz, who writes NFPA Impact and is on what seems to be a perpetual nation-wide speaking tour!

All of which, to me, speaks to the depth of our magazines and the issues our writers tackle every month.

The Fire Fighting in Canada/Canadian Firefighter presence in Penticton also presents a bit of a conundrum: some columnists are speaking concurrently – Vince MacKenzie and Gord Shreiner are doing a session on marketing your fire department at the same time as Shayne Mintz's aptly titled, "You're the fire chief – what can you tell me about residential sprinklers?" It seems I need a clone, or perhaps a drone (watch for July cover story on unmanned aerial vehicles!).

The FCABC has done solid work in the last few years – its fire-services liaison group report, "Transforming the Fire/Rescue Service," led to new minimum training standards. It has hosted brainstorming sessions with fire chiefs and CAOs – a bit of a radical concept that is getting rave reviews. It is working with partner agencies and organizations to promote the smoke-alarm campaign "We won't rest until you install and test."

This FCABC conference will be my fourth in eight years – Kelowna in 2007, Nanaimo in 2009, and Victoria in 2014. I didn't know a soul in Kelowna. Not surprising to those of you who have met Hope Fire Chief Tom DeSorcy, he took me under his wing. A few years later, at the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) conference in St. John, N.B., in 2010, I introduced Tom and Vince, the now-famous Volunteer Vision duo. I swear it was as if they'd been separated at birth! (As an aside, the three of us are presenting Volunteer Vision – LIVE! – a rollicking, bear pit session, at the CAFC conference in September in . . . Victoria!).

My point? A lot of good comes from conferences. Seeing our writers often and knowing them well helps me better understand and edit their columns and the issues they dissect. When conference delegates see us all together – we often do a get-together and photo session – they ask how they can be part of what we do. I know this is a shameless plug and a little lighter than recent blog offerings about fire marshals and unflattering reports about the fire service, but it's Friday and I'm going to picturesque Penticton and, at least for a few days, I'm adopting the laid-back B.C. attitude! In between conference sessions, of course.
Written by Laura King
June 2, 2015 – Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek and I have seldom seen eye to eye in the four years that he has been the province’s chief fire officer. That’s hardly a surprise to many of you, who know my position on openness, transparency and good government.

Wieclawek, you may have heard yesterday (you can read our news story here), is leaving the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management June 19.

There had been rumours of Wieclawek’s departure for weeks – there was talk when I was in Dryden in April, where the fire marshal spoke to delegates to the Northwest Response Forum, and during the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) conference last month in Toronto.

I figured the gig was up when Wieclawek bowed out of the Fire Fighting in Canada/OAFC golf tournament a month ago – he was to be my guest, an olive branch of sorts.

It is imperative that those in positions of authority earn credibility and respect from their peers: to be blunt, I’m not sure this fire marshal ever did.

I give Wieclawek credit for trying, particularly in the last 18 months or so. It isn’t easy speaking at conferences in front of hundreds of chief officers who sit, arms crossed, critical of every word, sometimes snickering.

I also give him credit for trying to deal with media – particularly a certain trade-magazine editor! – in a timely fashion, trying to be open, even encouraging me to call or email him directly rather than go through the gatekeepers in communications. He was, I believe, often stymied by government, his hands tied.

Wieclawek had been appointed Jan. 28, 2011, shortly after the release of the so-called risk workbook to help municipalities identify the hazards in their communities and then match the level of service to those risks. The project was essentially scrapped and re-worked over the next couple of years.

During Wieclawek’s tenure, there have been flip flops on issues such as sprinklers and fire drills in homes for vulnerable occupants. The OFM has failed to offer the necessary courses and training for fire officers – its certification program manager, Doug Goodings, is also departing, a big loss for the office.

For me, the relationship with the fire marshal got personal back in 2012, after I reported on and blogged about the Meaford trial in December 2011, particularly the testimony of an OFM inspector who I said was ill-prepared for his cross examination by defence lawyer Norm Keith, a pit bull who chewed up and spat out the prosecution’s case against the Meaford and District Fire Department – all charges were either dropped or dismissed.

The OFM wasn’t happy with my reporting.

I saw the fire marshal in May 2012 at a retirement soiree for Toronto Fire Services Chief Bill Stewart – it was an awkward moment outside the main hall, between speeches – and, aware of the OFM’s dissatisfaction, I suggested that we talk soon. I suggested, again, when I saw Wieclawek a couple of days later, at the OAFC conference in Toronto, that we chat. We agreed to talk later that day and the OFM arranged for a meeting room.

I was well prepared to stand my ground about my reporting. I wasn’t prepared for a three-on-one – Wieclawek, the assistant deputy fire marshal of the time, the OFM’s communications person, and me.

I almost walked out – I could sense what was coming – but I was too curious. It wasn’t a pleasant meeting. We agreed to disagree about what could be reported from a trial (I had covered courts for years – I knew the rules), and on freedom of speech, essentially. I agreed to reach out to the OFM for comment on matters that concerned it, and the fire marshal agreed to be more open to my calls and questions and to respond within a reasonable timeframe.

That never happened. I called and emailed and was stymied by the gatekeepers. That’s how government works.

I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the technical committee hearings on sprinklers in vulnerable occupancies (government rules), and I never got details I repeatedly requested about the review of the provincial incident management system that’s happening as we speak, among other things.

Oftentimes in the work world, people who are good at what they do are promoted into positions for which they are not well suited; teachers become principals, reporters become editors, hockey players become coaches. Wieclawek had big shoes to fill – those of predecessors Pat Burke and Bernie Moyle.

Wieclawek joined me and some colleagues in Dryden for dinner several weeks ago. He talked about his children and the perspective they have given him on life.

Already there are rumours about where Wieclawek will land. I wish him well.

As for the interim fire marshal, Jim Jessop knows how to work the media – he did so spectacularly well on the sprinklers file and has developed strong working relationships with particular reporters. He may have to be a bit more careful in his new role.
Written by Laura King
All right. All right. All right. I wasn’t going to dignify Margaret Wente’s column about underworked and overpaid firefighters with a response. I changed my mind when I read online some of the more than 600 comments about Wente’s May 19 musings –632 comments, to be exact. What I’m going to say may surprise you.

We could talk about salaries and arbitration and parity with police and doing more with less; we could talk about who responds to tornados, train derailments, floods – all the stuff Wente and the Fraser Institute report on which she bases her column neglect to mention. (You can read my response to the Fraser report here.)

Wente’s opening line, “It’s good to be a firefighter, especially if you live in a small town,” holds no water; most small Canadian communities are protected by volunteers. We all know that. And we know that working seven or eight 24-hour shifts a month means firefighters put in more hours on duty than many Canadians do over 30 days in their 8:30-to-4:30 worlds.

I’m preaching to the choir. But the choir – that’s you guys – better start singing more loudly and more clearly, and in perfect harmony; loudly and clearly enough to be heard by the taxpaying masses who added their two-bucks worth to Wente’s remarks and whose online vitriol drips with disdain. It’s not my job or your chief’s job or the union’s job to advocate for you because someone wrote something you don’t like (the OPFFA did make a decent video about what firefighters do but I’m not sure it reached those taxpaying masses). If you want to change public perception, then do something.

Lots of commenters wrote about how much it irks them to see firefighters in grocery stores shopping for their supper (none explained why). Others bashed firefighters for having second jobs building decks or renovating basements. “Cut back on firefighters and Home Depot would go out of business,” one said. There were several references to firefighter hero complexes and the fact that firefighter unions back certain political candidates.

There’s nothing wrong with buying groceries, building decks on the side or being politically active.

But public perception carries a lot of weight. And the public – or at least a good percentage of the people who read Ms. Wente’s column – perceives that firefighters are a bunch of louts who sleep soundly on shift, dress in their gear to unnecessarily respond to medical calls for which paramedics are more qualified, stop at Sobeys to pick up pork chops using fire-department dollars (yes we know that’s not the case), and, if they are in Ontario, end up on the sunshine list.

The taxpaying masses also perceive, and perhaps in this case more rightfully so, that firefighters are asking for more in their contracts but want to do less – premium pay for training, fewer shifts, more vacation, more leave days, more benefits.

Does it matter what people think? If 632 Globe readers took the time to comment –we at Fire Fighting in Canada know that readers respond only to what really annoys them – then yeah, it matters, particularly if you let it get to you. And, many firefighters and firefighter associations seemingly do just that.

So how do firefighters – you guys – make the taxpaying public understand that you don’t sit on your well-paid, well-toned behinds all day waiting for calls from Mrs. Smith? How do you make people grasp the fact that the municipalities in which these angry commenters live – and the politicians they elected – determine the levels of service?

When firefighters in Slave Lake, Alta., were chastised after a wildfire burned part of the town rather than praised for saving an even bigger portion of the community, Fire Chief Jamie Coutts made YouTube videos explaining how long and hard his team worked, what they saved, how overwhelming the fire was. He used social media to turn the tables on the naysayers. Several of our Fire Fighting in Canada columnists have written about marketing your department to your community and helping to change negative public perception; doing so requires work, they note.

You are smart people. If you don’t like what Globe and Mail readers or the Fraser Institute says (even if it is inaccurate) turn the tables. Do something about it. Me and at least 632 others will be watching.
Written by Laura King
May 12, 2015, Toronto – Context. There’s certainly not a lot of it in the Fraser Institute bulletin on municipal fire services released last week.

If you haven’t read one of the many news stories about the report, here’s the gist: there are more career firefighters in Canada – specifically, in Ontario – than there used to be but fewer fires.

Really?

It took three highly educated researchers – people with masters degrees and PhDs – to put together a 14-page document that includes two full pages of references (to justify their hours of research, no doubt) yet fails to mention that fires burn hotter and faster than they used to, that there are standards and SOPs and SOGs for sending firefighters to structure fires, that municipalities determine the levels of service they want, and that some firefighters work in prevention and public education – areas that contribute to the reduction in fires.

Wow.

If a reporter – like me – published a news story that was devoid of context, he or she would be pilloried and vilified. (The IAFF does just that in its response to the bulletin, posted last night, which is worth reading and challenges the researchers’ methodology.) 

What’s more, the Fraser Research bulletin bizarrely features a graphic on its cover of a firefighter wielding hose that is spraying paper money and coins. Is it the mandate of the Fraser Institute – a non-partisan research and education organization – to editorialize and sensationalize?

OK. I know. I have skin in the game. I’ve had calls and emails about the report and people asking if I planned to write about it. I didn’t. Until I got the calls and emails. Because, frankly, I didn’t think it justified a response. But if the bulletin is being distributed among municipal leaders who, mind you, probably know a lot more about fire than these three researchers, then perhaps they will also read this and glean the much-needed context.

It wasn’t clear to me who commissioned the report, so I sent an email to lead author Charles Lammam. He replied last night.

“In an era where municipalities across Canada face budgetary pressures while claiming a lack of revenue, all spending choices warrant close examination,” he said.

(I see he used the same line in an op-ed piece in the Vancouver Province – I didn’t even get an original answer.)

“No agency or group commissioned the report.”

OK. Fair enough, given that there have been plenty of news reports critical of firefighter salaries and municipalities complaining that they can’t afford them – although, interestingly, that’s not the focus of the report.

I also asked whether the researchers – who complained about the lack of available statistics on fires and firefighters – had contacted each provincial office of the fire marshal or fire commissioner to ask for data. Yes, yes, we know there’s no national database but a little digging would have unearthed provincial numbers. I find it curious that the report doesn’t include them.

The Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management provided numbers, Lammam said. Other details came from annual reports from Calgary, Montreal and Toronto – all easily accessible online, and Statistics Canada. He didn’t answer my question.

As the IAFF points out, the report does, however, include firefighters who work for private companies – oilfields, for example – in its conclusion that the number of firefighters has increased in the last 16 years. Those firefighters are not paid by municipalities so I’m baffled about the relevance.

The Ontario numbers were easily accessible and, therefore, the report focuses on Canada’s most populous province, where cities such as Brampton and Milton are among the fastest growing in Canada. And, therefore, because councils in Brampton and Milton and the like have set the levels of service, there are more firefighters than there used to be. Surprise.

“We’re seeing a puzzling trend,” Lammam said in the email, “a growing number of firefighters and escalating fire services spending, despite fewer fires to fight.”

Clearly Mr. Lammam and his team didn’t ask anyone in the fire service why there are more firefighters and fewer fires. Doing so, of course, would have debunked the report – provided context.

I could go on and even agree with some of the comments made by Ontario union president Carmen Santoro on a radio talk show on Friday, but I’ll leave you with a few thoughts.

The report acknowledges that firefighters (maybe we should call them something more accurate – emergency responders?) do more than fight fires – medical calls, hazmat incidents, motor vehicle collisions.

But it fails to take into account tornadoes and mall collapses and wildfires and floods and train derailments.

It fails to mention that if municipalities were to reduce service levels then residents might demand a reduction in taxes.

It fails to mention that firefighters don’t want more fires and more property damage and more injuries and fatalities.

It fails to recognize that municipalities are matching the level of service to the risks in their communities – because that’s what taxpayers want.

There’s the context.
Written by Laura King
May 8, 2015, Toronto – I’m going to say it out loud (or, more accurately, type it): there is going to come a day – soon – when municipalities will require the people they hire to be firefighters to have university degrees.

No degree. No job.

That shouldn’t surprise you – it’s a natural evolution given the business, management, political and soft skills required to be promoted in the fire hall or into management.

Education – for firefighters and fire officers – emerged as a theme in my circles the last couple of weeks.

The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management and the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs have all announced education programs. Only the OAFC program includes a degree – through the University of Guelph Humber in emergency management.

Essentially, it seems to me, organizations are back filling, trying to get fire personnel the education they need to do their jobs – once they already have the jobs. That’s why I expect municipalities to change the criteria for their firefighters to include a university education.

As OAFC first vice-president Steve Hernan explained to me yesterday, “around the council table, and when fire officers are looking for jobs, [councillors] are looking for degrees rather than diplomas. They want the people they hire to have the critical-thinking skills that come with that.”

Briefly, the OAFC’s program builds on the education that fire officers already have – NFPA Fire Officer I and II – through a certificate program that requires 18 credits in management, human resources, emergency services management and emergency incident management.

Those courses lead to a college diploma and the college credits can then be applied toward the university degree. Make no mistake, Hernan said, it’s a lot of work and requires consistent part-time study.

The point, said Hernan, is to build on the courses and certificates a fire officer already has rather than start from scratch, and develop the skills municipalities are demanding of their senior-management team members.

There have, for years, been issues in Ontario (and other provinces) with fire officer training – access to it, funding for it, delivery of it.

And there have been complaints that the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management doesn’t provide a full range of necessary courses and programs.

Now, Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek told delegates to the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs conference this week, there’s a deal with the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md. – the OFMEM will be the only external organization accredited to deliver National Fire Academy programs, including the executive fire officer course.

Interestingly, when Wieclawek asked who in the room of more than 300 chief officers might be interested in taking such courses, not a single hand went up.

I messaged OAFC president Matt Pegg to ask why.

“The NFA executive fire officer program is both exclusive and well regarded,” he said. “I suspect that most Ontario chiefs will not be familiar with it.”

Which is probably the case. As Pegg said, you can’t want what you don’t know about.

The deal, I’m told, required some finagling to do with student background checks, academic history, and such.

As for the CAFC, its professional development program launched last week. Details were in our February issue.

The three organizations’ programs – the OAFC’s, the OFMEM’s and the CAFC’s – have different goals but the message is clear.

What’s also clear is that getting hired after doing a quick stint at a firefighter training campus or a community college will soon be unlikely.
Written by Laura King
May 4, 2015, Toronto – I met Jessica Boomhower last night. Jessica, you may remember from a column in the December issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, is a 20-year-old firefighter from Greater Napanee, Ont., who collapsed while getting onto a truck for a call last June.

Jessica had a brain bleed. She is in a special-ordered hot-pink wheelchair, although she walked on Saturday, unassisted under the watchful eye of Chief Terry Gervais, a milestone after brain surgery in March. Not a big deal, Jessica insisted with a typical young-adult attitude: “It was just too much trouble to get my wheelchair or walker out.”

Jessica’s sense of humour is intact but she has lost the hearing in her left ear. She calls her progress slow. Her mom, Bonnie, also a volunteer firefighter for the Greater Napanee Emergency Services, marvels at how far she has come in less than a year.

Jessica cruised the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs trade show yesterday and attended the memorial service and reception last evening.

The folks Greater Napanee are resilient. The Highway 401 bus crash that involved several members and their families had already brought the department closer together. Jessica’s challenge is another hurdle but hardly a roadblock.

-

Delegates here learned a lot about resilience yesterday. I’ve seen a lot of duds in eight years of conferences and presentations, so I was looking forward to hearing David Griffin, the driver of the first-due engine at the Charleston, S.C., Sofa Super Store fire.

Griffin’s energy – HE YELLS A LOT! – is contagious and, admittedly, part of his schtick as a speaker, but his message – that doing things the way they’ve always been done just because they’ve always been done that way is unacceptable – is bang on.

In Charleston, where everything that could go wrong did, and nine firefighters died fighting that furniture-store blaze, there was no accountability system. No RIT. Tradition dictated SOPs and SOGs. Egos as big as aerial trucks trumped safety. Best practices didn’t exist.

Griffin was on the pump panel that day. There wasn’t enough water pressure. He shut off the flow at a crucial moment. His survivor guilt drove him to alcohol, drugs and mixed-martial arts fighting.

Until he woke up with his eyes swelled shut from blows to the face and realized that punishing himself wasn’t the answer. He went to school to learn about leadership and change.

And he had hundreds of fire officers hanging on his every word yesterday. He tells the story better than I can – we’ll have his book In Honour of the Charleston 9: A Study of Change following Tragedy, on our Firehall Bookstore site shortly. Read it!

-

It’s down to 13 candidates for 12 spots on the board of directors of the OAFC. Voting ends tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. Of course, no one wants to be the odd person out so there is some lobbying going on – I even saw some vote-for-me flyers.

I’m told Matt Pegg will not be challenged in his run for a third term as president, and although no one expects big change, there’s certainly talk that a board incumbent could be unseated. As always, watch @fireincanada and @OnFireChiefs on Twitter for results.
Written by Laura King
April 30, 2015, Toronto – Most of us know about the Charleston 9 – the firefighters who were killed after they responded to the Sofa Super Store fire on Monday, June 16, 2007, in South Carolina.

Most of us probably haven’t heard of David Griffin, the driver on the first engine to respond.

Griffin’s story is gut-wrenching. “Plagued with survivor’s guilt, he numbed himself with alcohol, painkillers and blood sports so much that it nearly cost him his life,” according to the bio on the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs website.

Griffin had fought Houston ‘The Assassin” Alexander in a mixed-martial arts bout. For three days, his eyes were swelled shut from the battering to his face.

At which point Griffin stopped feeling sorry for himself and did something to honour his nine fallen colleagues – he got a doctorate of education and is helping to change the way firefighters are trained.

I sit through a lot of presentations at conferences. I’m looking forward to this one on Sunday at the Ontario chiefs annual education seminar. Griffin, by the way, a former professional baseball player, is just 34 years old; in 2007, when he drove the truck to that Super Sofa fire, he was 26.

The OAFC trade show and conference – the largest in Canada – ought to be interesting. The agenda is fulsome – Griffin’s presentation follows former FEMA deputy director Richard Serino’s talk about the Boston marathon bombing, another must-see.

From an inside-baseball perspective, there will likely be some politicking in the hallways as candidates for the board of directors jostle for votes (up to 16 for 12 positions, I believe) and then for positions on the executive. With Greater Napanee Chief Terry Gervais retiring and Hawkesbury Chief Ghislain Pigeon moving on, there will be a minimum of two new faces on the board, and, if my intelligence is correct, potential for some change on the executive. Watch for tweets (@fireincanada) when election results are announced on Tuesday.

I’m also hearing rumblings about change at the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management so I’ll be hunting for confirmation. The OFMEM’s booth at the trade show is always bustling with uniformed staff, and Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek gives his annual update to OAFC delegates at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

With the Ontario training officers, communicators and public educators conferences running simultaneously to the OAFC – there are several joint sessions but also separate seminars and presentations – there will be more than 600 delegates at the Toronto Congress Centre, starting Saturday morning.

The trade show opens Sunday at 10 a.m. – I’m hoping to connect with all the vendors I missed last week in Indianapolis! – and, as always, assistant editor Maria Church (a conference/trade show rookie!) and I are looking forward to networking – I find the best story ideas talking to people after hours.

Mostly, though, we’re looking forward to golf tomorrow – our annual Fire Fighting in Canada/OAFC Provincial Open. Maria will be on the $10,000 hole-in-one tee watching for a lucky drop, and – as was the case last week in the collapsed-structure simulator at FDIC in Indianapolis – I will be trying not to humiliate myself.

Fore!
Written by Laura King
April 28, 2015, Toronto – I don’t know how, but it seems I missed more at FDIC in Indianapolis last week than I saw.

I missed Redwood Meadows Emergency Services Capt. Jennifer Low-Evans complete her first 5K in the Courage and Valour Fun Run on Thursday.

I missed Brampton firefighter Britney Holmberg and her teammates win the female relay in the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge on Friday.

I missed seeing Ryan Pennington – some of you know him as @jumpseatviews – who writes for our magazines about hoarding and, for the first time, taught at FDIC.

Two and a half days, a spreadsheet full of meetings with vendors and writers from across Canada, the gigantic trade show, a morning in the Guardian Safety & Survival Training Simulator (more on that below) and the usual after-hours networking that is part of the FDIC experience.

And that’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

I saw a bit of the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation/9-11 stair climb on Friday between meetings with truck manufacturers at the mammoth Lucas Oil stadium. (Pierce’s 107-foot aerial on a single rear axel is impressive, even to non-truckies like me.)

I talked with a lot of people about technology – wi-fi and backup cameras and command/control systems that do everything but drive the trucks.

I saw Hurst’s newest edraulic tools – stronger and more technologically advanced to help rescuers deal with reinforced vehicles.

I saw Alan Brunacini walking down the street by himself – twice.

I had dinner at a table beside Billy Goldfeder.

I ran into Vaughan Fire Service chief mechanic and writer Chris Dennis and Thames Centre Chief Randy Kalan – and dozens of other Canadians.

I met with Calgary firefighter Randy Schmitz – who has written for our Canadian Firefighter magazine the entire time that I’ve been editor.

I watched groups of firefighters testing tools and PPE and wishing they had a municipal chequebook in hand.

My plan last week was to talk to truck makers to find stories for our annual apparatus issue in November. Interviews were set up in advance and public relations people came armed with key drives full of high-res photos and PDFs full of specs.

My secondary mission was to experience the Personal Protection Equipment Specialists /Guardian collapsed-structure simulator (www.ppesguardian.com). Given the Elliot Lake mall collapse in 2012 and the tornado in Essa, Ont., in 2014, I thought it would be a good idea to learn more about search and rescue in collapsed structures.

My first clue that the simulator might turn out to be more than I expected came when the PR guy said he was looking forward to hearing about my experience in the “box of pain.” Probably not the best advertising tagline, I thought.

So, I packed my custom-fitted Globe gear (sorry, shameless plug!) and hoofed it four long Indianapolis blocks from my hotel to South Street where the simulator was set up outside Lucas Oil, near the Scott Combat Challenge – prime real estate indeed!

It turns out that Guardian owner Kerry Oswald – a small woman with a great big personality – developed the idea for the simulator after a week spent washing coveralls for urban search and rescue teams after 9-11.

“They told us that those coming to help just didn’t have the training,” Oswald said.

Oswald works with trainers from the Baltimore City Fire Department, who (very patiently) escorted me through the simulator – the unit I was in costs about US $400,000. I asked for light just once when I could feel a tight space through which I was supposed to shimmy, sideways, using my hands to pull me forward, but was nervous about getting stuck – and humiliating myself! With a bit of coaxing, it was a piece of cake.

I made it over the floating floor, through the entanglements, across the catwalk, tossed debris aside (mild exaggeration – I grunted and pushed with all my weight), crawled up blocked stairs and through narrow passageways, slid through a crevice, jumped at the sound effects – cries for help, creaks and groans – and remembered to sound the floor in front of me at all times, right hand on the wall, left hand outstretched to feel, in the pitch black. I banged my (securely helmeted) head about 100 times, my knees may never recover, and I sweated off every calorie consumed over four days in Indy – including the world-famous shrimp and hotter-than-hot, clear-your-sinuses-and-make-your-eyes-water cocktail sauce at Harry & Izzys Steakhouse.

I spent the week before Indy in Dryden, Ont., at the Northwest Response Forum, learning about the bureaucratic side of emergency management and response from those who had responded to collapses, tornados and floods. I wanted more hands-on experience.

Jennifer Evans, Britney Holmberg and Ryan Pennington achieved lofty goals in Indy. My goal was journalistic – to be better able to write and edit stories about emergency response so that I can use what I learned and saw and touched to help Canadian firefighters better themselves and, hopefully, help to make their jobs easier and safer.

After completing the simulator exercise and taking photos, I hid my soaking wet hair under a ball cap, and started to walk back to the hotel carrying my jacket, pants, boots, helmet, camera and my everything-else-I-might-need-in-Indy bag that included a tape recorder, notebook, wallet, maps, Blackberry, iPhone . . . you get the gist.

I made it half a block and grabbed a cab. The trade show had just opened and I had miles to go that afternoon. Literally.
Written by Laura King
April 16, 2015, Dryden, Ont. – We call him Ken Dryden, the fire chief in this northern-Ontario town where the Domtar mill looms on the horizon and the Northwest Response Forum wrapped up Thursday afternoon.

Ken “Dryden” Kurz is like so many other full-time chiefs of volunteer fire departments: always on call, able to spit out statistics and details about every corner of his community, committed to keeping his people safe.

He’s also a life-long resident who still shakes his head about the fact that his Austrian ancestors came this far north from Kentucky because the land was free.

Dryden is a snapshot of small-town Canada: 8,000 people but a hub for surrounding communities, so much so that the Walmart expanded – twice.

I asked Chief Kurz this morning to show me the risks in his town.

Domtar, which has two full-time firefighters with whom the Dryden Fire Department work closely.

The Ministry of Natural Resources forest fire fighting base where about 400 people work at this time of year, in a complex near the airport; big buildings, no sprinklers.

The airport – 10 or so minutes from Dryden’s main fire hall and no internal fire brigade. (Except when the prime minister comes to town and the City of Dryden Fire Service is required to stand by.)

Monster homes on Wabigoon Lake – no hydrants, a two-metre drop to the lake from which firefighters draft water; the fire department carries sleds to pull and push equipment up and down, to and from the lake.

A Superior Propane facility, smack across the street from a handful of homes. Vulnerable occupancies – well, not officially, but buildings that house people that are . . . vulnerable.

Grass fires. Neighbouring Oxdrift and MNR fought one last night.

We drove down along the Wabigoon River that opens into the lake. The ice is almost gone but not enough so that water bombers can fill up but today’s sunshine may change that.

Sixty volunteer firefighters at two stations. A quint, two pumpers, a rescue, ice-water rescue equipment.

A year ago, Dryden’s emergency education officer (a combination emergency management an public-ed position) was cut. Council wants an Office of the Fire Marshal review of fire-protection services.

An hour in the work truck with Ken Dryden might be a better idea.



Read Laura King's first blog and second blog from the Northwest Response Forum.

Follow her on Twitter @FireinCanada, for live coverage of the conference.


See a Storify collection of the tweets here.




Written by Laura King
April 15, 2015, Dryden, Ont. – Little things.

Like how to get inside the Lac-Megantic fire station when the electricity has been cut to the whole town because a massive freight train has blown up and everything is on fire.

Like the fact that the only survivors at the Musi-Café were those who had gone outside for a smoke, saw the explosion, and ran for their lives.

Like the fact that many of the hoses brought by mutual aid had incompatible couplings.

Like the fact that when Lac-Megantic Fire Chief Denis Lauzon finally found enough foam he had to then scramble to get a cheque for $300,000 from municipal officials because the company wanted payment up front – while the better part of the town was burning.

Like the woman who ran the Salvation Army food truck and fed more than 1,000 firefighters three meals a day for a month.

“We had a problem on Saturday,” Lauzon said Wednesday at the Northwest Response Forum in Dryden, brilliantly interspersing lighter moments among the presentation slides filled with eerie photos of the inferno.

“EMS and police were coming and stealing our food! She was our savior!”

And like the fact that there were rescues and saves that were never reported. Good work done by lots of people.

How Lauzon maintains even a semblance of a sense of humour about the events of July 6, 2013, is remarkable, but it’s clear that it comes from understanding that his firefighters – and others – did everything possible during and after the fire and explosion that killed 47 people.

Eighty fire departments helped in the aftermath – from as far away as Gatineau, on the opposite side of the massive province of Quebec.

“That’s my mutual aid,” Lauzon said, chuckling and the radius of the encircled fire departments on the onscreen map, but grateful.

Six departments came from the United States; Lauzon traded off portable radios for a French/English interpreter for those firefighters. Unified command was used.

There was a 3 p.m. meeting every day with dozens of agencies. Manhole covers blew off, becoming “flying saucers,” a problem that was eventually fixed by the use of protective chimneys. Water and air and soil were contaminated by the fuel in those nasty DOT 11 train cars.

Lauzon was blunt when I chatted with him yesterday about the US $200-million settlement announced a couple of weeks ago – shaking his head over the fact that only a fraction of the money is destined for the families of the 47 people who died in the explosion.

He was also blunt during his presentation, about the stresses of working to change regulations for the transportation of dangerous goods, among other things.

“I see it as a moon,” he said. “It has a shiny side and dark side.

“The shiny side will work with you and bring ideas to go forward. But the dark side . . . ”

I’ll leave it at that.



Read Laura King's third blog, or jump back to her first blog from the Northwest Response Forum.

Follow her on Twitter @FireinCanada, for live coverage of the conference.


See a Storify collection of the tweets here.




Written by Laura King
April 15, 2015, Dryden, Ont. – I swear I didn’t know until I was driving here Monday for the Northwest Response Forum that Dryden is in the Central time zone. I’m fairly well-traveled and well-read (and those who know me will tell you that I like to think I know a fair about, well, everything!) so I’m still shaking my head about having missed that crucial detail of Canadiana.

I did, however, know that Dryden is the home of NHL defenceman Chris Pronger – as a sign at the entrance to town proclaims – and that Air Ontario flight 1363 crashed in Dryden in 1989, an emergency that killed 21 of 65 passengers and three of four crew members.

This week, Dryden and Fire Chief Ken Kurz – along with the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Red Cross – host the fourth emergency management conference; first up Tuesday afternoon was Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek, in his fairly new capacity as head of emergency management.

Wieclawek crammed a lot of information into the hour-long presentation, and there’s no question that the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management has its hands full as it integrates the two offices – fire and emergency management – and determines how response agencies and organizations can better collaborate.

Collaboration is, obviously, critical to emergency management. Which is why I was hoping for more details from the fire marshal about the status of the province’s review of the incident management system and urban search and rescue teams. Wieclawek said the province is bringing together all kinds of organizations to “re-validate” IMS – “to look at it and see if it’s serving our needs” – Ministry of Natural Resources, Ministry of Transportation, the Salvation Army, paramedic chiefs, police, and armed forces, and fire.

One goal of the review is to have experienced commanders available to help manage incidents such as ice storms, tornados and structural collapses, Wieclawek said. “So the next time we have a prolonged event in a municipality we’ll have the incident-support teams that can be available to them to help manage that incident.”

Who specifically is involved in the IMS review? Which agency is responsible for rescue in Ontario? Will there be clarification on the role of the Ministry of Labour during a rescue, as recommended in the Elliot Lake inquiry report? Is there a plan for search and rescue teams, or funding?

Maybe this forum in Dryden wasn’t the right place to go into this kind of detail given the diverse emergency management audience.

The agencies mentioned in the Elliot Lake inquiry report recommendations have until Oct. 15 to respond; clearly there’s work going on but lots to do before that deadline. It has been almost three years since the Algo Centre mall collapsed, 18 months since the inquiry finished and six months since the recommendations were released.

I guess we’ll have to wait.



Read part 2 of Laura King's blog series from the Northwest Response Forum.

Follow her on Twitter @FireinCanada, for live coverage of the conference.

See a Storify collection of the tweets here.




Written by Laura King
April 13, 2015, Toronto – With apologies to family and friends in Atlantic Canada, it’s spring. Which means that in the next few weeks, those of us who write about or sell to the fire industry are heading northwest, to Dryden, Ont., for an emergency management forum, southwest, to Indianapolis, for FDIC, and back to Toronto for the Ontario chiefs conference and trade show.

That’s just the first leg, but after this harsh and dismal winter of everyone’s discontent, during which fire fatalities made headlines far too often, bad hotel food and blisters from walking trade-show floors will be a welcome diversion.

This week in Dryden we’ll hear (more) about the mall collapse in Elliot Lake and the response to it, flooding in Fort Frances, the Lac-Megantic disaster, and the tornado in Angus, Ont. We’ll hear about pandemics, panic and weather patterns, wildfires and cross-border co-operation. And we’ll hear from partners such as the Red Cross – a vital agency in the emergency-response chain.

I used to think emergency management and incident management were bureaucratic terms used in other places where bad things happen to good people – massive earthquakes in faraway countries that kill thousands, for example.

But the list for this week’s Northwest Emergency Response Forum blows up that theory: structural collapse with two fatalities in a former mining town; a train derailment and explosion that killed 47 people in Quebec’s Eastern Townships; and significant weather events in rural Ontario. These incidents alone involved hundreds of first responders, municipal managers and members of partner agencies. And it’s crucial that those people know how to work together.

We know that in Elliot Lake after the Algo Centre mall collapsed in June 2012 there were some communication issues among responding agencies, that there was confusion over rescue versus recovery. We know two responding teams – Toronto’s HUSAR and the OPP’s UCRT – had never trained together. We know the province is reviewing incident management and that in Ontario the Office of the Fire Marshal is now also responsible for emergency management.

We know that some of the lessons learned in Elliot Lake were applied in Angus in June 2014 when a tornado ripped roofs and backs off homes in a quiet subdivision: communication was first rate; a scribe was used to take notes; duties were clearly defined. Nothing had changed on paper – by government – but those in charge had read and listened and acted. (I like to think we played a small part – that the lessons learned were applied because the responders read our blanket coverage of the Elliot Lake inquiry online and in our magazine!).

I’m looking forward to Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek’s presentation Tuesday called The Changing Face of Emergency Management, to find out where things stand. Will there be clarification on the role of the Ministry of Labour during a rescue, as recommended in the Elliot Lake inquiry report? What’s going on with the provincial incident management system – it is being reviewed but what’s the status of the review and who or which agencies are involved? Is there a plan for search and rescue teams, or funding?

The province said in November 2013 – almost a year before the inquiry report was released on Oct. 15, 2014 – that it would review IMS, figure out how the HUSAR and UCRT teams could train together, and improve communication among agencies.

The province should be well on its way to making the changes recommended by Commissioner Paul Belanger in the report that was released six months ago.

Fire Marshal Wieclawek speaks first thing tomorrow afternoon. I’ll let you know what he says.

Read Laura King's blogs part 1 and part 2 from the Northwest Response Forum.
Written by Laura King
Feb. 11, 2015, Toronto – Out of respect for the family of Adam Brunt, the Durham College student who died during ice-water rescue training in Hanover on Sunday, I waited a couple of days to say out loud what everyone else is thinking: How many students have to die in Ontario before the training industry is regulated, and simple standards – such as teacher-student ratios, safety briefings, safety plans, safety officers and rapid intervention teams – become mandatory?

It seems we’ve had this conversation before – about the acceptable number of deaths of seniors in retirement homes – and we all know the Herculean effort required to convince government to make sprinklers mandatory.

But training companies are different; they are not regulated – by any agency or any government department. Not the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM), not the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, and, in this case, perhaps not even the Ministry of Labour (which is investigating), given that there was no employer/employee relationship between the training provider and the students.

By now you’ve read that the company that offered the program in Hanover, Herschel Rescue Training Systems, is the same one that provided the ice-water rescue course in Point Edward, Ont., in 2010, when firefighter Gary Kendall became trapped under ice for four minutes, and died. The ratio? One instructor to 18 students.

Herschel owner/operator Terry Harrison was charged under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). In that case, the act applied because Harrison had been brought in by the fire department, which was the employer. The judge determined that the fire chief had not technically handed over authority to Harrison that day, and therefore Harrison was not the supervisor, so the charges were dismissed. The town paid a $75,000 fine for failing to ensure the safety of its workers, and that was that.

Sunday’s training program in Hanover was different, an open course, advertised on Herschel’s Facebook page – one instructor and 12 students, according to police – offered to individuals like Brunt, who enrolled in the session to add to his resume, hoping it would help him get hired.

Which I find interesting. Not a single fire department in Ontario – that I’m aware of –lists ice-water rescue among its minimum requirements for hiring. Conventional wisdom used to be that the more courses a firefighter candidate listed on a resume, the better the chance of employment. And out of that conventional wisdom sprung myriad training companies – many run by career firefighters who work shifts and have the time to devote to a second job – offering courses in everything from ice-water rescue to auto extrication.

Particularly now, with standardized firefighter candidate testing in Ontario, those courses aren’t necessary to get hired, and prospective firefighters need not spend money taking them.

That message, however, hasn’t filtered down to firefighter candidates, who still clamour to enroll in courses to build their CVs. As one former fire chief told me yesterday, all that mattered when he was hiring was that candidates had NFPA Firefighter I and II, did a great interview, and were the right fit for the department.

“If I want them to have ice-water rescue or any other course,” he said, “I’ll put them through the program because I want them to be taught to do it our way.”

So, what’s the recourse? Well, if social media is a barometer of public opinion, the outrage over Brunt’s tragic and preventable death should mean immediate changes. But we all know that’s unlikely. Who, or what agency or organization, would champion that change?

Well, given that that there have been two training deaths, in similar circumstances, in five years, and given that fire fighting and all its offshoots are inherently dangerous, it follows that realistic training for such pursuits is also inherently dangerous and, like fire fighting, requires regulatory control.

Therefore, it logically falls to the agencies that have the ability to enact regulations – the OFMEM, the Ministry of Colleges, Universities and Training, or the Ministry of Labour – to take the proverbial bull by the horns, develop guidelines, and ensure that training for any aspect of fire fighting be done as safely as possible, no matter who provides it.

And while organizations such as the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, the training officers association, the union (which has the most political clout), and the volunteer firefighters association have no regulatory authority, it would be shameful for them not to advocate for such change.

To start, fire-service leaders can petition politicians for an inquest into Brunt’s death. (There were calls for an inquest into Kendall’s death but none was ever held.) Inquests produce recommendations, which, while not binding, can – at the very least – draw mainstream media attention to an issue and may potentially lead to legislation.

Another option is to press Ontario’s fire-services advisory committee for OH&S, and the NFPA, to develop guidelines for training similar to those for live fire or technical rescue, and which would be applicable to third-party trainers.

There must be other options, and people far smarter than me and more connected to training and rules and standards and guidelines might have better ideas. If you do, speak up. Gary Kendall and Adam Brunt need you to be their champion.
Written by Laura King
Nov. 28, 2014, Toronto – It was, perhaps, a bit of much-needed closure for Paul Officer when Elliot Lake inquiry commissioner Paul Belanger said on Oct. 15 that the chief’s submission to the Ontario Awards for Firefighter Bravery should proceed.

“These awards should wait no longer,” Belanger said. “Those commendations are richly deserved.”

If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, there was some scrambling in the last five weeks to ensure that the three Elliot Lake Fire Department members who went back into the collapsed Algo Centre mall on June 23, 2012, to search for anyone trapped in the rubble, received their medals last night at Queen’s Park.

Chief Officer’s long-ago submission had been put on hold until after Belanger completed his report from the inquiry into the collapsed mall and the emergency response to it.

Belanger’s words, written in his lengthy report and also spoken solemnly and clearly in the auditorium at the Lester B. Pearson Civic Centre in Elliot Lake, were applauded – the only applause, and certainly one of the only pleasant moments, during the hour-long news conference after the document was released.

Captains John Thomas and Ken Barnes, and firefighter Adam Vance were honoured at the legislature last evening for their willingness to do everything they could to extend the search for anyone trapped in the mall, for their courage and compassion. (You can read more about the ceremony and the recipients here, and browse a gallery of photos from the event here.)

Thirteen other firefighters, from Mississauga, Kenora, and Shebandowan, and six police officers from Niagara, Toronto and the OPP, also received medals from Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell and Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi.

The ceremony was formal and elegant and by invitation only. For whatever reason, the government chose to keep the names of the recipients quiet until 6 p.m. last night, so I smiled when I saw on Facebook shortly after 7 a.m. yesterday that the proud sister of Elliot Lake Capt. Thomas, had posted congratulations, hours before Queen’s Park did so.

For the firefighters from Mississauga and Kenora and Shebandowan, the remarkable acts of bravery for which they were honoured – rescuing trapped and injured colleagues from a burning warehouse (“Your son helped to save my life,” I overheard one Mississauga firefighter, still on crutches from the April 23 incident, tell the dad of one of the honourees last night), rescuing a woman from a house fire, and rescuing a couple from Shebandowan Lake – will likely stick with them as tests of character, strength and teamwork and memories of high-risk and terrifying jobs well done, of positive outcomes.

John Thomas, Ken Barnes and Adam Vance had no idea on the afternoon of Saturday, June 23, 2012, while they were doing their jobs and attempting the impossible – to find and save anyone who had been trapped – the same way any one of you would have, that they would later endure a media circus, public derision in the community in which they work and live, and a seven-month inquiry.

I was at the ceremony, thanks to some good people who did some good things to secure me a place at Chief Officer’s table, with Vance and his family, and next to Barnes and Thomas and his Cape Breton contingent. As Chief Officer said to me last week, “It will be nice that you can see the guys get over the finish line with a smile.”

Indeed it was.



Written by Laura King
Nov. 11, 2014, Toronto – There’s still so much to say about the report into what happened in Elliot Lake in June 2012, when the roof of the Algo Centre mall collapsed. But I’ll stick to what I find most frustrating.
Written by Laura King
Nov. 6, 2014, Toronto – We know you don’t like change. (Neither do we – don’t tell our bosses!) But technology and a demand for more original content from our writers and columnists that you can more easily access on your smartphones and tablets led us to redesign our website. It’s change for the better!
Written by Laura King
Oct. 15, 2014, Elliot Lake, Ont. – In case you had trouble reading between the lines earlier today when I wrote about the poorly executed emergency response to the mall collapse here in June 2012, let me spell it out for you.
Written by Laura King
Oct. 14, 2014, Toronto - Three of Canada’s four remaining HUSAR teams are likely to downsize and become regional response teams without renewed federal funding for the heavy urban search and rescue sector.
Written by Laura King
Oct. 12, 2014, Toronto – If a mall in small-town Ontario collapsed today, would the emergency response be any different than it was on June 23, 2012, in Elliot Lake? Probably not.

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