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Comment: Driving home the point about safety

I was driving through rural Ontario recently when a fire truck pulled out in front of me from a side street. The equipment looked immaculately cared for – shiny to the point of blinding; it was obviously a source of great pride to the community.

November 17, 2008
By Laura King


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I was driving through rural Ontario recently when a fire truck pulled out in front of me from a side street. The equipment looked immaculately cared for – shiny to the point of blinding; it was obviously a source of great pride to the community.

It was also obviously old – not as old as me, but I’d guess it to be from the late 1970s or early 1980s. And that of course is from a time when safety and performance standards for fire trucks were a lot different than they are today.

This edition of Fire Fighting in Canada is our annual apparatus issue and that’s what has me pondering the performance and safety of the equipment used by today’s fire services and emergency responders.

As Sean Tracey reports in his NFPA Impact column on page 38, the National Fire Protection Association has released new standards for automotive fire apparatus. His column is a reminder that often the lives at risk for emergency responders are not the people calling for help, but rather the people racing to their assistance.

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According to data from the NFPA, two-thirds of the fatalities involving volunteer firefighters over the last 10 years were a result of a failure to wear a seatbelt. It’s a horribly disheartening statistic and it leads to more uncomfortable questions.

If the vehicle had seatbelts, why weren’t they being used? If it didn’t, why were they not added? You don’t need to be Kreskin to divine the answer to either – money: money for training to ensure that strapping on a seatbelt is as automatic as securing your child’s or grandchild’s car seat, or instruction on safer driving practices; money for retrofitting non-compliant apparatus with the most basic of safety equipment, like seatbelts.

The sad reality for fire services in much of the country is that the news on funding is not going to be good. A recession now seems all but inevitable.

Ontario’s government is already in budget deficit; there’s a high expectation the federal government may be too. The only thing standing between most municipalities and red ink is a statutory requirement to – unlike the provinces – balance their books. And with taxes falling or stagnant because of the economic pressure on businesses, it’s hard to imagine a lot of extra dollars coming out of the budgetary fire hose.

So I will, again, repeat a familiar refrain. It is incumbent upon the leadership of the fire services at every level to make their voices heard. In the cacophony of calls for cash to fund so many different things, many of them very worthy, the fire service has to make its voice heard first, above all others. It has to be top of mind for decision makers.

Invite your municipal, provincial and federal representatives to tour your stations. Show them the challenges, work with them toward solutions. Make the issue resonate.

The safety solutions don’t have to be expensive. A lecture from an expert on safe driving and traffic management might be arranged for coffee, Timbits and goodwill. When I heard Mike Wilbur, the Fire Department of New York’s apparatus guru speak in Lunenburg, N.S., last summer, driving habits and safety were high on his list of achievable safety targets for all departments.

Think about shining a light on your issues to illuminate them for those who decide your budget. Think about the easiest step you can take to make your department safer.

Think about it.


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