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To break the ice, Ted Wieclawek’s first order of business when he spoke to delegates to the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) conference in May was to clarify the pronunciation of his often-mangled surname: Vin-sla-vick. 

May 18, 2011
By Laura King


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To break the ice, Ted Wieclawek’s first order of business when he spoke to delegates to the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) conference in May was to clarify the pronunciation of his often-mangled surname: Vin-sla-vick. 

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Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek speaks to the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs conference in May about challenges and success during his tenure so far.


 

Phonetics aside, Wieclawek outlined the challenges for the Office of the Fire Marshal and the Ontario fire service. Wieclawek was appointed fire marshal on Jan. 28, 2.5 months after the release of a controversial document called Operational Planning: An Official Guide to Matching Resource Deployment and Risk. The OFM says the document, or workbook, helps municipalities meet the obligations set out in Section 2 of the Fire Protection and Prevention Act (FPPA).

Critics of the document – including the OAFC – say it’s a staffing plan for suppression that doesn’t work without additional resources, such as a forthcoming companion document that deals with fire-prevention and public education, and they say the whole package needs further review. 

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Under section 2(1)(a) of the FPPA, fire departments must complete a risk assessment, one of the four key minimum requirements for fire-protection services. The assessment is to be reviewed and updated to support informed decision making and evaluation of program delivery.

The risk document, as it is commonly known, is a guideline rather than a policy, but the OFM, on its website, “encourages municipalities and fire departments to use it to make informed decisions regarding the delivery of fire suppression services.” (The document can be found on the OFM website at www.ofm.gov.on.ca.)

Fire Fighting in Canada editor Laura King spoke with Wieclawek about the risk document, the soon-to-be-released companion workbook that marries public education and fire prevention with the risk-assessment process, and the challenges and successes the fire marshal has experienced so far.

Q: Although you have considerable experience with the OFM, you are just a few months into your new position as fire marshal. Can you talk about the challenges and successes so far?

A: One of the issues for the fire service in general is the challenging economic and fiscal situation that we continue to face, and the implications it has on our ability to maintain and sustain a high level of service.

The challenge is that the public expects the fire service to continue to provide a high level of service when these financial constraints make it increasingly difficult to do so. It will be vital for the Office of the Fire Marshal [OFM] to work positively with municipalities and other stakeholders to determine best ways to achieve this.

Our challenge going forward is to continue our efforts to integrate the three lines of defence: public education;  fire safety inspections and enforcement; and emergency response. Ultimately, we want everyone in the fire service to support education, prevention and suppression activities. Ensuring these types of links among all lines of defence will enable us to prevent fires, reduce losses, injuries and deaths, and ensure firefighter health and safety.

Given that public education is the first line of defence, the OFM has developed many excellent programs and resources for the fire service to meet its legislated public-education requirements. The fire service has done a good job achieving the minimum public education requirements. As we move forward there will be greater expectation for municipalities to provide additional services that address local public education and prevention needs. The OFM will provide further guidance to municipalities so they can better determine what additional services they should and can provide.

We’re about to release a document focusing on fire prevention – Operational Planning: An Official Guide to Matching Fire-Prevention Resources and Risk – it will provide guidance to municipalities to determine what additional fire-prevention and public-education initiatives they should be involved in.

The resource has really stimulated the debate about matching your community risk with your department’s existing suppression capabilities to determine if there are sufficient resources. It’s essential for municipalities to determine whether they are providing a level of service that meets the needs and circumstances of their communities.

As fire marshal, I want to strengthen our already positive rapport with stakeholders, including the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs [OAFC], The Firefighters Association of Ontario and the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association, to name a few. In order to be successful in all of our efforts, it’s imperative to work collaboratively with the entire fire service.

For example, the document on risk deployment has been released, I have met with OAFC and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, and will be obtaining some additional input from them to ensure that the document addresses any concerns that they have. I will also be doing that with the companion fire-prevention guideline, and, hopefully, when we’re done, we’ll have two documents that together will achieve an integrated balance of the three lines of defence.

We’re expecting to release [the prevention document] in June for consultation and I’m hoping that municipalities will see how the guidelines can enhance fire safety in their communities.

Q. Can you explain the objective of the risk-assessment document?

A. The document is based on a risk assessment – the application of a risk model that helps a fire department identify high-risk occupancies by considering factors such as building stock, building construction, and the occupants who may be living in the building. Based  on this information, fire departments need to assess their existing emergency response and fire suppression capabilities.

This will also help the municipalities determine whether they need to deploy additional resources that they may have, or seek support from neighbouring municipalities in addressing identified risks.

Having said that, if the municipality determines that it cannot [handle a certain building], or that it may have some limitations, the purpose of the fire-prevention companion workbook is to provide officials with some other options related to the other two lines of defence, which may help them reduce or address that risk, rather than relying on suppression. They can use fire prevention or public education as a way of reducing that risk by using or augmenting some of the mitigating strategies that they have, which may include routine inspections of these buildings and working with building owners to ensure that they are complying with the fire code.

Also – and this goes back to a real opportunity and a challenge we have – they can take the information obtained through the fire-prevention expertise and transfer it and make that link to the suppression side, so that at least if they’re going to respond to a particular building, then the department will be intimately familiar with that building, and they know the types of risk that they’re facing – what we call pre-incident planning.

By looking at their suppression capabilities, the department may realize that they have some challenges. They may need to look to partners such as other municipalities and building owners, or develop fire-prevention strategies to help lower the risk.

Q. Was the public-education document part of the OFM’s original plan or is it the result of consultations with stakeholders who were concerned that the risk document needed additional support?

A. Absolutely we were planning to develop the document; that was under consideration. There is no doubt that the OAFC has been very supportive of its development. I believe, if I understand their position, that to really paint that picture and get a holistic view of the fire service, both workbooks should be applied at the same time to ensure that all available options are considered to come up with final strategies to address the challenges in their communities.

Q. Are the documents mandatory?

A. They are guidelines but I think they raise the bar. There is no doubt that once we have the guidelines out there, and they are supported by our stakeholders, there will be an expectation within the fire service that they be considered and become an established best practice. They’re not mandatory, but certainly they will be something to help municipalities make informed decisions and to help them rationalize and explain how they have reached decisions with respect to the level of service they are providing and how they are providing it.

Q. Public consultations on sprinklers in residences for vulnerable people (i.e., seniors’ homes) ended in March. What is the OFM’s position on sprinklers and the much-discussed mandatory retrofitting of these types of buildings?

A. My position, and that of the OFM, is that we support the installation of sprinklers; we know they can control fire, reduce loss of life, injuries and property. They can limit smoke development and spread and give occupants more time to evacuate and significantly reduce the likelihood of injury and death due to smoke inhalation.

In addition – and this goes back to three lines of defence and that integration – sprinklers can reduce the risks faced by firefighters by controlling the spread of smoke and fire.

Saying that, sprinklers are a valuable component of fire safety, but there are many other things that must be done in order to ensure the safety of occupants and that includes the prevention of fire, early detection of fire, effective evacuation, and pre-fire planning, as we referred to earlier, to support an effective emergency response.

So, while I support the installation of sprinklers, a decision to require sprinklers in specific occupancies is a matter of government policy.

The consultation on fire safety in vulnerable occupancies was completed on March 26, and the expectation is that this will provide government with the information it needs to make that important decision. Sprinklers have a role but it has to be in conjunction with the other strategies that we have in place.

In 1997, we introduced legislation demanding installation of smoke alarms but we find, 14 years later, that people are still dying in fires in homes where there were no working smoke alarms. That tells me that even though you legislate something, you must ensure that you have the proper public education for awareness, and you must have fire departments out there educating building owners on their responsibilities, conducting inspections, and making sure that smoke alarms are in buildings and working properly.

Legislation, from a broader perspective, is one significant act but you have to do all those other follow-ups and activities to make sure they have the intended impact.

I look at smoke alarms over 14 years – the fire service has done an incredible job promoting smoke alarms and they’re legislated, but it still concerns me, as the fire marshal, that we have far too many people being injured or dying in fires. The common denominator is the lack of working smoke alarms, and that tells me we have far more work to do in educating the public and using tools, such as zero tolerance and the enforcement of the fire code, to make sure that people get the message.

Q. Where does the OFM stand on enforcement of the fire code given that enforcement and the laying of charges against violators is being pushed by certain groups?

A. One of the things that the fire-prevention workbook will do is help raise the bar and continue to promote that discussion beyond doing inspections on request or complaint. To meet section 2(1)(b) of Fire Protection and Prevention Act (FPPA), should you be considering other things such as routine inspections of vulnerable occupancies? Should you be considering taking an approach where you rely more on other strategies, such as enforcement and zero tolerance, when you have violations of the fire code that present an immediate threat to life and safety?

If there were a lack of a fire alarm or smoke alarm systems, or an impeded means of egress that is a threat to life safety, then I would say fire departments should be taking an aggressive enforcement approach to rectifying that violation.

I believe the fire service needs to move more towards a zero-tolerance approach to violations of the fire code that pose an immediate threat to life safety, and any of those that fall into that category should be dealt with in an expeditious manner (including prosecution if necessary).

Q. Ontario lost two volunteer firefighters in Listowel in March and there have been several fire fatalities this year. What is the OFM doing to increase safety for volunteer firefighters and Ontarians?

A. The loss of the two firefighters on March 17 was a tragedy and I’d like to reiterate my condolences to their families, friends and colleagues. I think the answer to this question goes back to what we talked about in the beginning about achieving the optimum balance among the three lines of defence.

I think the answer lies in our investigation. Every time we investigate a fire, we learn something from it that we can use in public education: training, engineering, construction, pre-incident planning or firefighter health and safety. I think, most importantly, these investigations help us to determine how similar fires can be prevented and how we can influence different outcomes.

The investigation is ongoing, but once we get the report, we’ll be better placed to determine what considerations we need to make with respect to additional training, public education, what we can do to help enhance firefighter health and safety, construction, the need for pre-incident planning when responding to these types of fires. We’re hoping that the investigation will provide the information that we need to provide better tools and support to the fire service.

Q. Is there a final message that the OFM wants to get across to stakeholders?

A. I think we have some opportunities to revisit our already strong relationships and partnerships that we have with our stakeholder groups – and also look at non-traditional stakeholder groups. There are areas that I consider to be a challenge to the fire service, groups that may be hard to reach, such as children in the care of the Children’s Aid Society, or older adults. We must work with other ministries in the government responsible for vulnerable groups in the province to identify ways to best protect these groups,

One example is the OFM’s work with the Children’s Aid Society to provide a fire-safety guide for child-welfare professionals who visit homes. The guide includes a checklist about working smoke alarms, safe storage of fire-starting materials, and home-escape planning, and I think this is a responsive, community-based outreach program that will help the fire service provide training to child-welfare professionals. This will enable us to help these people be more aware of the things they should be doing to keep themselves safe.

I think this type of community outreach is an area where we can do some more work with our partners in the community and within government. The program is still in the draft and is expected to be launched in June.


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