Fire Fighting in Canada

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Change Agent: November 2013

I often overhear my colleagues express concerns about the non-fire/rescue situations to which we respond as fire/rescue services. More often than not, I hear complaints about the time it takes and the costs we incur – personally and professionally – to provide these support services to other response agencies.

November 12, 2013
By Tom Bremner

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I often overhear my colleagues express concerns about the non-fire/rescue situations to which we respond as fire/rescue services. More often than not, I hear complaints about the time it takes and the costs we incur – personally and professionally – to provide these support services to other response agencies. How did we get to this level of multi-faceted response? Were we pressured into it? Was it the lack of any other agency to do it? Or was it just because we wanted to help?

Everything we do has a cost: personal, financial, work-related or a combination of all of these things. Did we do a cost-benefit analysis before we took on these new responsibilities? Did we think about the savings or benefits we would provide to other organizations by doing more? Today, taxpayers are the decision makers, but they speak via their elected officials. So, who should be making the decisions about which calls we respond to – the citizens we serve or the municipal officials to whom we answer? Of course, the argument is that the taxpayers don’t know what they are talking about or that they don’t know the community’s needs as well as the politicians do. In some cases, that might be a fair statement; in other cases, it is not. In many instances, I believe, we may have jumped the gun and created our own challenges by providing these additional services and maintaining response personnel to handle day-to-day operations in mid- to small-sized communities.

The refrain is familiar: “I joined the department to fight fires, not to respond to all these other types of calls for assistance.” Fair enough. However, to my mind, the chiefs are the real victims of these circumstances in which we find ourselves as fire/rescue/medical/specialized departments. In smaller, or non-governed communities in particular, the chief may reason that there is no other agency in the community to attend certain types of calls for assistance, and so the fire department needs to respond. (Salt Spring Island, for example, does not have municipal councils, rather it is an improvement  district under the jurisdiction of the British Columbia government,  with a board of fire trustees). Communities need to understand the value of their human resources – their firefighters – and the commitment they make to being first responders, and then decide which services the municipality needs.

Overtaxing resources or overworking personnel can negatively affect a well-running service. The costs of wages and benefits in larger communities with career departments are quickly becoming a concern and a challenge (see Peter Sells’ Flashpoint column on page 94). But collective bargaining agreements that are negotiated must be understood by residents and the media, and respected – that is why they are called collective bargaining agreements. Fewer departments these days have true volunteers; paid on-call or auxiliary response models are becoming more popular given what is being asked of the responders.

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Are we afraid to hear what the public has to say about us in terms of how we operate? In several studies over the last decade, respondents indicated that they love firefighters: firefighters always do their best to reduce losses due to fire, they don’t create discomfort or carry weapons, and they try not to bring negative news to people’s doors. Yet, in contrast to this apparent support, career firefighters, in particular, are an easy target for complaints about work hours and conditions, and media pundits have been critical of firefighters for earning good wages.

Would it be a step backward to revisit the types of responses that fire/rescue services attend within the community? Would it be a loss to reduce demands on responders? Would it be a poor choice to lessen the pressures on chiefs and others who struggle to maintain a professional level of response, knowing that, realistically, their departments can’t withstand this service level because of resources or funding? Are we being realistic in terms of the services we provide? Someone – the responsible governing body or the authority having jurisdiction – needs to more frequently review and revisit what we do, and why. To my mind, the status quo is not working; with increased call volume comes an increase in medical and psychological issues because our firefighters are, in some cases, being pushed to the limit.

It’s OK to feel nervous about how to discuss this issue with your CAO, mayor or other governing body, or your community.  Look around you: there will be a neighbouring community that is facing the same issue and can provide you with support and suggestions to consider. Failure to do anything, failure even to simply consider the challenges we face, will bite us, and that will hurt us badly. Often the best defence is a well-planned offence; being up front and direct regarding our in-house and external challenges can work out for the better for the entire organization in the long run. It’s up to us as fire-service leaders to review our departments’ roles in our communities, communicate with our elected officials and or look for positive ways to resolve our own  challenges. If we’re’ not willing to do that, then why complain?


Tom Bremner is the fire chief for Salt Spring Island, B.C. Contact him at tbremner@saltspringfire.com


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