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Comms Centre: Lessons learned from fire fatalities

Not all fire departments have communications divisions but every fire department relies on communicators. With 34 years of fire communications experience, there are numerous lessons I have learned, some of them the hard way. I will share some of these through a series of columns.

February 7, 2017  By Sue Dawson

No one wants to experience the loss of a firefighter in the line of duty. That happened to us at Barrie Fire and Emergency Service in 2002. The investigations, reviews and inquest affected each of us. From this experience, I set out to make positive changes within Barrie Fire Communications, and provincially.

Two fire-fatality inquests in Ontario in 2016 also had a considerable impact on communications. One inquest probed the deaths of three young adults who perished April 29, 2012, in a Whitby house fire; the second related to four members of one family who died in a house fire on March 29, 2013, in East Gwillimbury. As is the case with most coroner’s inquests, there was a component that deals with fire communications. Whether your fire service has a communications division, or you purchase communications services from another agency, consideration should be given to the jury recommendations that came out of these tragedies and how they impact communications and communicators who do your department’s call taking and dispatching.

I have chosen to highlight and comment on the recommendations that I believe directly relate to fire communications. The jury recommendations were broken down into groups and their recommendations are as follows:

■ Office of the Fire Marshal
“To continue and expand the accessibility of all training resources to municipalities by providing standard curriculum e-learning, train-the-trainer packages, local training opportunities and teaching materials to municipalities to provide for consistent province wide training and standards.”


From my experience, I know this expanded training would be a welcome addition to the communicators within the Province of Ontario. Each communications centre creates its own training manuals and yearly training plan, and determines the length of the training program for new communicators entering the fire service. Sure, we share our knowledge and documents, but there is no standard approach to how fire communicator training is delivered.

■ OFMEM and municipal fire departments
“To consider incorporating lessons learned from East Gwillimbury and Whitby incidents into future course materials (with personal information and identifiers removed and without using the audio of the 911 calls), such as fire college symposia and training materials, including but not limited to suggestions for self-evacuation and/or self-preservation.”

What does your training comprise for communicators on pre-arrival instructions? Do you have any standard operating guidelines for communicators to follow? Do you recommend people evacuate or not? Consistency, when no two situations are alike, is difficult to achieve.

■ Municipalities
“Work towards a provincially integrated computer program to assist dispatching of 911 calls.”

Perhaps integration of systems in the future would work. As of now though, in Ontario, each police, fire and emergency medical services centre has its own computer-aided dispatch system on different platforms. It would be great if we could easily share information quickly and electronically instead of picking up the telephone to relay the required information.

Ministry of Community Safety
“To make a Regulation, pursuant to clause 78(1)(k) of the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, requiring mandatory certification and training, to recognized industry standards, for all personnel (as defined in the Fire Protection and Prevention Act) whose primary function is to perform: 1) fire inspections, 2) public education, and/or 3) communications (call-taking/dispatch).”

The OFMEM was to be ready in early 2017 to certify communicators to the 2014 Edition of NFPA 1061.

There are more potential liability problems faced by emergency services if something goes wrong at the call-taking or dispatch stage. This discussion will continue in my next column.

Sue Dawson has been with Barrie Fire & Emergency Service in Ontario in the communications field for more than 30 years.  She is the Deputy Chief of Communications and Business Services.

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