Fire Fighting in Canada

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Comment: Going into the unknown

Going into the unknown

December 7, 2007 
By James Haley

Fire fighters know when they arrive at any scene, they first have to deal with the unknown and consequently are always gathering information as the incident unfolds to help them mitigate the problem and limit dangers to themselves and others. This is nowhere more evident than in hazardous materials incidents. But how do we know hazardous materials are involved? We don’t,  but upon size-up, the officer in charge will determine the level of danger evident and proceed accordingly. For the designated “haz-mat” calls, the big ones, many departments are not equipped to deal with those incidents that may require specialized training and large-scale operations including evacuations of residents, multi-agency involvement, a unified command structure, etc.

More and more, areas of the country have developed or are developing regional hazardous materials teams, that will respond to your area in the event of a higher level haz-mat call. We’re not talking about a small fuel spill after an MVC, but perhaps an industrial accident, a train derailment where dangerous goods are involved — that sort of thing. The incident that requires a level of specialized training most fire fighters do not have. These incidents also usually require long periods of time to mitigate, something many smaller departments are not equipped to handle. This is where the regional team is necessary. In this issue we sample some provinces where such regional teams have been set up and are operational.

For incidents most fire departments can handle without calling in a regional team, Ed Brouwer discusses training scenarios dealing with hazardous materials in The Trainer’s Corner this month. Ed first gives a primer on preparation for potential hazardous materials calls, from the type of call and how exposures can affect us, to what gear we should be wearing and how decontaminations should be conducted. As he notes, “It is vital to know your department’s limitations when it comes to haz-mat incidents.”

There have been more sad times for the fire service in the past two months, during which three fire fighters died in the line of duty. One each in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, all from apparent heart attack at or just after an incident. We mourn the loss of our brothers. While a heart attack can hit any one of us at any time and without any warning, these losses are a strong reminder to all of us have regular medical check-ups and keep ourselves in the best physical shape possible.


With this issue, Don Baird celebrates his 35th year writing his Fireside Chat column, beginning in the June 1981 issue at the invitation of then editor Don Glendinning. I am confident in saying that Don knows more about the history and evolution of fire fighting in Canada than anyone else. He has devoted his life learning about and understanding the complexities and culture of the fire service, from his childhood growing up across from a fire station in Saint John, N.B., to his university years in Fredericton, where he served as a volunteer fire fighter. He worked with the Fire Underwriters Survey for many years, evaluating municipal fire departments across the country and in the late 1970s conducted a detailed study of the country's entire fire protection system for the National Research Council. He has also written the two definitive books about the Canadian fire service, “The Story of Firefighting In Canada” (1986) and “A Canadian History of the Fire Engines” (2000).

His eclectic interests have led him to write books on women at sea in the age of sail, tugboats, steamships as well as a couple of biographies. Don continues to research other subjects for more books. And so, Don has decided to cut back on his schedule of columns, but he will continue his insightful historical comparisons and commentary on the fire service of today occasionally and we look forward to them, as always.

Yours in fire service safety and education,
James Haley

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