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Blue Card Command

Firefighters will often part company at the end of a shift by saying, “See you at the big one.” One of the oddities of our subculture is that such a phrase usually is received with a smile. Even as 9-11 begins to fade from our immediate consciousnesses we are willing, and even eager, to face that one career-defining incident that would bring out all hands.

November 16, 2009 
By Peter Sells

Firefighters will often part company at the end of a shift by saying, “See you at the big one.” One of the oddities of our subculture is that such a phrase usually is received with a smile. Even as 9-11 begins to fade from our immediate consciousnesses we are willing, and even eager, to face that one career-defining incident that would bring out all hands.

What about the “little one”?

Retired Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini (seated near podium) discussing potentially fatal dangers to firefighters at the 21st Century Incident Command Symposium hosted in October by Mississauga Fire & Emergency Services.
Photo courtesy Nelson Lawrence, Medteq Solutions

On Oct. 25 and 26, Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services in Ontario hosted a symposium titled “21st century incident command training – supporting safe and effective ICs in your organization.” The focus of the symposium was the system of hazard-zone management developed and tirelessly promoted by retired Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini. Brunacini, of course, is the author of the definitive text Fire Command, The Essentials of Local IMS, which has influenced how emergency incidents are managed across North America and around the world for the last few decades. Along with his sons Nick and John (both also retired officers from the Phoenix Fire Department), Brunacini was the symposium’s keynote speaker.


With about 200 attendees representing fire services from Saskatchewan to Prince Edward Island (with Labrador City in there for good measure), Brunacini opened by reminding us that we will face a gazillion “little ones” before we see another “big one”. And when you consider that it is at the little ones that firefighters are injured and killed, the need to properly manage our most common responses seems obvious. Our people are in more urgent danger at a first alarm, offensive interior fire attack than they are at a fourth or fifth alarm surround-and-drown lumber-yard fire or a week-long smoldering pile of tires. According to Brunacini, the regular practice of sound, safe, disciplined procedures at the little ones – where the dangers are greatest – prepares us for the big ones.

John Brunacini emphasized the point by asking if anyone at the symposium had ever responded to a NIMS type 1 or 2 incident. Such incidents in a Canadian context would involve federal and provincial agencies and would typically last several days at a minimum. No hands were raised. “The system we use to manage our work must match the work that we perform,” John advised. The system the Brunacinis advocate and teach grew out the Phoenix Fire Department’s recovery process from the death of firefighter Brett Tarver in the Southwest Supermarket fire in 2001. PFD discovered that it had been applying a residential house fire mentality to all incidents. In this case, the result was that firefighters, including Tarver, were placed in offensive positions in a large commercial structure in which the fire conditions had become defensive. By the time Tarver became lost the die had essentially been cast.

The symposium presented the philosophy and application of the Brunacinis’ Blue Card Command Certification Program ( or ). Ten officers from Mississauga Fire, along with colleagues from Windsor and Belleville, Ont., spent the previous six days with Nick, John and me, completing certification as Blue Card instructors. One of the keys to Blue Card, according to John, is that “no layer of the system – strategic, tactical or task – can outperform the non-performance of any other layer.” At the task level, John compared firefighters to scuba divers or skydivers. “We know as we enter the hazard zone that our life expectancy is defined by the air in our SCBA, just as a skydiver’s is defined by the time it takes to fall to the earth. If we run out of air, or if their parachute fails, the result is the same. A firefighter’s survivability is based on an effective size-up and proper management of their air supply.”

Alan described our responses as “compressed, sequential, simultaneous, decentralized events with a beginning, a middle and an end.”

“We needed a fast, agile, simple, tight command system to evaluate standard conditions and apply standard actions to achieve a standard outcome,” he said.

Alan related a conversation with a young medic who questioned whether it was possible to have such a system for structural fire fighting. He drew the following analogy;

“Have you ever been to a call where someone had been shot in the head?”

“Yeah, Chief, a few times.”

“What were your standard actions?”

“One round of drugs, you know, for the family.”

“And the outcome?”


“Well sometimes we go to buildings that have been shot in the head. What’s the difference? Even if we conduct an aggressive interior attack, the building is going to be hauled off to the dump next Wednesday.”

Canada’s first class of Blue Card Command Certified Instructors, from Mississauga Fire & Emergency Services, Windsor Fire & Rescue Services and Belleville Fire & Emergency Services, with instructors (front row from left) Peter Sells, John Brunacini and Nick Brunacini, and Mississauga’s Chief Training Officer Shawn Matheson (back row at right).
Photo courtesy Nelson Lawrence, Medteq Solutions


In the analyses that PFD conducted as part of its recovery process, a gap in tactical management was identified. Alan continued: “At a smaller incident, the task level IC could manage the tactics. Once we had a strategic level IC in place, that IC could manage the tactics and allow the company officers to focus on the task level. As incidents got larger it was the tactical level that was breaking down. The changes that were needed were at the tactical management level. Maydays will tend to go the same way as your tactical level was going just beforehand. If you were out of control beforehand you will not be able to control the mayday.”

As part of the Blue Card program, tactical templates were developed for common building types (residential, multi-unit, strip mall, commercial and big box). Nick, with his background as a battalion chief and shift commander, presented some of the meat and potatoes of applying the tactical templates including a review of a strip-mall fire in which a false mansard across the front allowed the fire to skip around a firewall that separated the fire occupancy from the adjacent exposure. The incident action plan was to contain the fire to the burned side of the firewall by getting into the mansard and preventing extension into the attic of the unburned side. This was exactly the type of incident that was exercised in the instructor certification workshop.

On the second day of the symposium, a panel of Ontario fire chiefs joined Alan on stage for a forum with the audience. The first question concerned whether response chiefs should drive their own vehicles. Although each chief supported the idea, not everyone felt it could be afforded within their system. Alan started by relating that PFD also has dedicated field incident technicians (FITs) at the rank of captain who drive response chiefs’ vehicles and perform support duties at the tactical or strategic level (as assigned). As for apparatus drivers, Phoenix had been using engineers as a tested position (i.e. a position for which firefighters must apply and compete) for many years, reflecting Alan’s opinion that the driver/operator must be expertly trained.

“Apparatus accidents are not only hugely dangerous and expensive, they are almost 100 per cent preventable,” he said.

Toronto also has FITs (fireground incident technicians in the local terminology). Mississauga Fire Chief John McDougall’s practice is to assign a more junior or acting chief as FIT when staffing permits. This strategy combines the tactical support of a FIT with the safety of not having the chief drive while preparing for the incident, and simultaneously provides a mentoring process for the younger chief. (As a Mississauga taxpayer, I was very pleased with this approach.)

The panel of chiefs tackled other issues, such as defining what has changed the most in the fire service during their careers, and describing the challenges in today’s tight budget environment.
Toronto Deputy Chief Jim Shelton reminded us that we are in a media-rich world and that the public is kept aware of what we do. Therefore, we are accountable for our actions, internally
and externally.

Hamilton, Ont., Fire Chief Jim Kay noted that while our equipment is constantly evolving and improving, our fire-loss statistics, along with firefighter injuries and deaths, do not change significantly. This led him to wonder if we are complacent about our work and if we need to hold supervisors more accountable.

Fire Chief Andy MacDonald of Brampton, Ont., emphasized the need for comprehensive wellness and fitness in the fire service. He walks the talk himself, competing in the Scott FireFit championships each year. Brampton Fire has mandatory fitness testing built into its promotional processes, a unique and defensible approach to what can be a very thorny issue.

Oakville Fire Chief Richard Boyes advocated education on a number of fronts.  He feels that councils need to fully understand and support what is in their master fire plan and constant liaison and engagement with the fire service is the best way to achieve that. Also, he said, firefighters need to understand that they cannot take unwavering public support for granted rather they need to be educated to provide the best possible service each day and “walk with a little bit of purpose in their step.”

The last word has to go to Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion. The 88-year-old mayor was extremely generous in her praise of Chief Brunacini and his accomplishments. Likewise, she reflected on her relationships with fire chiefs and the fire service over her 31 years in office. She never forgets that Mississauga was put on the map through the excellent response to the 1979 train derailment, Mississauga’s “big one”. That derailment involved tank cars carrying styrene, toluene, propane, caustic soda and chlorine. As burning propane cars sent fireballs 1500 metres into the air, 218,000 of Mississauga’s 284,000 residents were evacuated for fear of a major release of toxic gas. This was the largest evacuation in North American history until New Orleans was cleared out during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and McCallion remains committed to ensuring that her firefighters are second to none.

So in that regard, Mayor McCallion, the Brunacinis and all in attendance at the symposium were in agreement: a safe and effective fire service in the 21st century requires safe and effective incident commanders.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor.

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