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April 4, 2013
By Laura King


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April 4, 2013, Toronto – The tragic loss of four lives in a house fire last week in East Gwillimbury, Ont., has drawn predictably sensational coverage by mainstream media. Finally, after Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek clarified at a press conference yesterday that the response time of the volunteer firefighters in East Gwillimbury was not a contributing factor in the four deaths, there is some accuracy to the reporting.

April 4, 2013, Toronto – The tragic loss of four lives in a house fire last week in East Gwillimbury, Ont., has drawn predictably sensational coverage by mainstream media. Finally, after Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek clarified at a press conference yesterday that the response time of the volunteer firefighters in East Gwillimbury was not a contributing factor in the four deaths, there is some accuracy to the reporting.

When East Gwillimbury Fire Chief Ken Beckett – a well-respected fire-service veteran – told The Toronto Star that having career firefighters available would have cut the 12-minute response time to the fully engulfed home by about five minutes, he was simply making the point to taxpayers and councillors that more career firefighters would result in shorter response times.

East Gwillimbury has a handful of career firefighters who work during the day, and Beckett is pushing for more. To my mind – and I haven’t spoken with Chief Beckett – his statement was purely strategic; he was not criticizing his own volunteer firefighters or comparing volunteer and career firefighters, as some have suggested.

We know now that there were no working smoke alarms on the main floor of the Dunsmuir home, where the fire started, and the consensus among those in the fire service with whom I’ve spoken is that there was little or no hope of getting the four family members out alive given that they were trapped in an upstairs bedroom when the 911 call was made and the house was fully involved by the time firefighter arrived.

The misinterpretation of mutual-aid agreements didn’t help matters this week. Newmarket Fire Chief Ian Laing told a Toronto Star reporter that his department, which has a mutual-aid agreement with East Gwillimbury “never got the call.” Laing was quoted accurately – East Gwillimbury never did call Newmarket, because by the time firefighters got to the Densmuir home, there was no point. The lack of understanding of mutual aid – rather than automatic aid – or of jurisdictional boundaries or service levels, mucked up the story. Laing said yesterday that he explained all that to the reporter, and gave details about hydrogen cyanide poisoning/smoke inhalation and what the circumstances would have been like for the family, but none of that made the paper.

Yesterday’s press conference at the Office of the Fire Marshal drew what Fire Fighting in Canada assistant editor Olivia D’Orazio called “a wall” of cameramen and a slew of reporters. Wieclawek, Laing and others spoke yesterday about fire prevention, working smoke alarms on all floors, and escape plans.

Regardless, the larger issue – or Fire Service 101 for reporters and taxpayers – is the fact that most rural and suburban communities in Canada rely on volunteer firefighters to provide public fire protection, including fire fighting, pre-hospital emergency care, and rescue.

Municipal councils set the level of service based on local needs and circumstances, and the ability to pay. And municipalities from coast to coast have cut or are looking to cut services, even those delivered by volunteer firefighters.

Municipal fire departments are expected to be capable of meeting their day-to-day fire protection needs; mutual aid is typically requested only in extraordinary circumstances.

Given the four deaths in East Gwillimbury, perhaps municipalities and fire departments need to determine if a house fire is an extraordinary circumstance and if bureaucrats have already cut too much from fire protection – or never provided it in the first place – placing public fire safety at risk. In at least two Ontario communities, councils are looking at replacing some career firefighters with volunteers.

Incidentally, both Chief Beckett and Chief Laing live in East Gwillimbury, both in sprinklered homes.

And blogger and Fire Chief Rob Evans was right about big-city media.


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