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Data for saving lives: New report on Indigenous fire data reveals gaps and opportunities

June 3, 2023 
By Len Garis and Mandy Desautels


PHOTO CREDIT: NIFSC

An organization dedicated to improving fire outcomes for Indigenous people in Canada has released a new report with recommendations for improving data collection and reducing fire risk in First Nations – timely information given the recent spate of tragic fires in Canada.

Commissioned by the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council (NIFSC), the report assesses the fire data collection techniques of the National Incident Reporting System, Home Safety Assessments and Fire Department Assessments related to Indigenous people on and off reserve, while also reviewing the available data pulled from those sources. Relevant Canadian Census data and fire safety findings from Canadian and international research was also included.

Entitled “National Indigenous Fire Safety Data Collection Evaluation: Review of Existing Practice and Recommendations for the Future,” the independent evaluation was carried out by Joe Clare, associate professor at the University of Western Australia, a published fire researcher and analyst who previously worked in Canada.

“The recent house fatal fire in First Nations communities in Ontario are a stark and tragic example of what the statistics tell us: People living on First Nations reserves are 10 times more likely to die from fires than the general population,” said Blaine Wiggins, Senior Director of the Indigenous Fire Marshals Service, which delivers services through NIFSC. “We must act to reduce these preventable deaths and injuries. The intent of this research project is to illustrate the gaps in existing data collection systems and identify improvements, while also highlighting evidence-based fire-prevention approaches that can make a difference right now.”

Need for data-informed fire prevention

The report was completed in March 2023, in the aftermath of three high-profile fatal house fires in First Nations communities in Canada: a March 2023 fire in the Skwah First Nation in Chilliwack, B.C. that claimed two lives, a February 2023 fire in the Pikangikum First Nation in northwest Ontario that claimed three lives including an eight-year-old girl, and a January 2023 fire in the Cree community of Peawanuck, Ont. that claimed the life of a 10-year-old girl.

A year earlier, a house fire in January 2022 at the Sandy Lake First Nation in northern Ontario claimed the lives of three children between ages four and nine, and a February 2022 fire at the Siksika Nation in southern Alberta claimed three lives including a six-year-old boy.

These incidents reveal the real-life impact of the higher fire risk faced by Indigenous people in Canada. Census data from 2016 to 2021 showed Indigenous respondents were more likely to be affected by indicators of higher fire risk, including crowded dwellings in need of repair, low-income households, children under age six, and one or more unemployed family members. A 2021 analysis of Vital Statistics data demonstrated Indigenous people in Canada are five times more likely to die from a fire than the general population – increasing to 10 times if they live on reserve and 17 times if they are Inuit. Other related research is noted in the NIFSC report.

Recommendations for improved data collection

Some common issues emerged during the review of the three data reporting platforms, including a lack of consistency in how information is collected and what details are reported. The report also noted that the voluntary reporting of data to the National Incident Report System (NIRS) tends to lead to over-reporting of the higher-profile fatal fires and under-reporting of other fires.

Recommendations specific to NIRS data collection included:

  • Aligning NIRS data collection forms with other reporting forms used in Canada;
  • Increasing the range of variables captured; and
  • Improving NIRS training to minimize the volume of missed responses.

The report also considered fire-related data in the Home Safety Assessment (HSA) database, also populated by voluntary submissions. Recommendations included:

  • Ensuring all HSA reporting entities use a consistent reporting structure; and
  • Aggregating community-based findings to highlight high-risk issues that need immediate action, such as a lack of smoke alarms or fire safety plans.

For data collected through Fire Department Assessment (FSA) audits, recommendations included:

  • Implementing a risk-based approach to prioritize First Nations communities; and
  • Targeting FSA audit performance on life safety, occupational health and document management – the factors most likely to have an immediate impact on reducing fire casualties and the least dependent on suppression infrastructure and equipment.

Common recommendations for all three platforms were:

  • Developing sustainable, partnership-based strategies to improve fire reporting by First Nations communities; and
  • Committing to undertaking evaluations of process and impact for any changes made.

Recommendations for improved fire outcomes

Of note from the NIRS data, more than half of the reported fatalities took place at fires that had burned out before the fire department had arrived.

Also noteworthy was the fact that working smoke alarms were present at less than 10 per cent of the reported residential fires, and that fire-related deaths were highest in locations with no smoke alarm.

Other significant findings included:

  • The most frequent reported room of origin was the kitchen, followed by living room;
  • The most frequent reported igniting objects were matches, smoker’s materials and electrical sources; and
  • The highest percentage of reported acts or omissions were suspicious fires, followed by human error (with the latter connected to most of the reported injuries).

Considering these results in the context of existing research and fire data, the report pointed to the unequivocal evidence that working smoke alarms reduce fire frequency, spread and related deaths.

It also noted that while fire departments are an important aspect of fire safety, the priority for remote First Nations communities should be on home and life safety systems such as smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms and residential sprinklers. All of these are proven, effective fire prevention strategies that can be implemented in a timelier manner given the remoteness of the communities and the high costs and resource demands associated with fire departments.

Key recommendations for improving outcomes included:

  • A targeted, research-based strategy for increasing the coverage of smoke alarms;
  • Targeted, research-based educational campaigns to reduce preventable fires from cooking, smoking and inappropriate use of heating equipment – using a range of delivery strategies and scheduled refreshers to prevent knowledge wear-off;
  • Examination of the extent of suspicious fires in vacant and abandoned buildings and implement a targeted prevention strategy if necessary; and
  • A risk-based strategy to prioritize installation of home and life safety systems – including smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms and residential sprinklers – in high-risk First Nations communities.

Implementing evidence-based change

The report concludes with guidance on effectively implementing and evaluating evidence-based change, including:

  • Be clear about the problems you want to address and develop targeted, problem-specific strategies;
  • Develop sustainable strategies that increase partnerships with other service providers, such as police, health, child and family services, and the First Nations themselves; and
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of any change, both in terms of the process and the impact, to identify areas for improvement.

“The recommendations in this report point the way to improved fire incident data collection that will benefit not only First Nations communities but all Canadians,” Wiggins said. “In the short-term, we hope to see decision-makers take note of the cost-effective, evidence-based fire prevention strategies recommended in the report and put them into action to reduce preventable fire deaths in First Nations communities.”

The report “National Indigenous Fire Safety Data Collection Evaluation: Review of Existing Practice and Recommendations for the Future” can be viewed here. For additional information, contact Len Garis at the email address below.

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Len Garis is director of research for the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council, Fire Chief (ret) for the City of Surrey, B.C., associate scientist emeritus with the B.C. Injury Research and Prevention Unit, adjunct professor in the School of Culture, Media, and Society, at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), and a member of the Affiliated Research Faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Contact him at Len.Garis@indigenousfiresafety.ca. 

Mandy Desautels is the director of strategic initiatives at the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council. She holds a B.Sc. in global resource systems from the University of British Columbia and a Master of Healthcare Administration from University of British Columbia. Prior to joining the NIFSC, she worked for B.C. Emergency Health Services and prominent NGOs. Contact her at mandy.desautels@indigenousfiresafety.ca. 


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