Fire Fighting in Canada

Comment: The new dangers of fire fighting

June 13, 2024 
By Laura Aiken

The federal government’s Infrastructure Canada arm took its fingers and, for the third time, conducted a nationally coordinated point-in-time count of homelessness for “Everyone Counts 2020-2022”. There were 67 communities studied in 2020-2022, which showed the number of people dealing with homelessness increased by 20 per cent since the last count in 2018. 

The biggest contributor to this change was unsheltered homeless, which increased by 88 per cent. Substance abuse (41 per cent) and mental health (60 per cent) were the most common health challenges reported by the 40,000 people counted.

Fire halls, particularly in communities where homeless encampments and drug problems have burgeoned, are increasingly facing unpredictable danger in responding to calls in proxy to these societal problems. The potential for weapons and violence is very real. Responding to calls where you don’t know if people are armed and their actions do not follow predictable paths due to a drug or mental health crisis is a growing concern for some Canadian departments. Fire fighting is an inherently dangerous job, and danger mitigation is a big piece. Some departments, with stories to tell (turn to page 10 for some of them), are purchasing armoured “slash” vests for their members to wear that offer an additional layer of protection against injuries like stabbing. 

Running into a burning building while everyone else runs out has always been part of the firefighter DNA. Fire has been studied, smoke gets read, there are training, tactics, standards and equipment to face this danger with so that one can be practiced and on guard for the additional inevitable surprises that can come along on the fire ground. What kind of training and equipment is needed for fire departments to best face the potential danger presented by the drug epidemic and encampments? What resources will support the most prepared and safest response? Does your department have them? 

I do not see a decline in homelessness on the horizon. No federal or provincial strategy has made a significant impact on what is an extremely complicated and multifactorial human crisis, considering the trajectory of the statistics. And, experiencing homelessness is not a bypass on procreation. There will be legacies of children impacted. A study by Raising the Roof showed by link between child and youth homelessness and adult homelessness. 

Government approaches to homelessness and encampments will continue to evolve, and fire chiefs will continue to be vocal, but there is not a whit of easy answer to be had. Considering the factors of fire risk in tent communities, and the safety for firefighters responding, fire chiefs deserve an influential and heard voice at the table. 

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