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April 9, 2013
By Laura King


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April 9, 2013, Toronto – The tragic, fatal fire in East Gwillimbury, Ont., on March 29 has led to some discussion in my circles about municipal boundaries and seamless fire protection. Is seamless fire protection possible? Should the closest station respond to the call no matter which municipality it is in? Should fire be a regional or provincial responsibility so that local boundaries are eliminated?

April 9, 2013, Toronto – The tragic, fatal fire in East Gwillimbury, Ont., on March 29 has led to some discussion in my circles about municipal boundaries and seamless fire protection. Is seamless fire protection possible? Should the closest station respond to the call no matter which municipality it is in? Should fire be a regional or provincial responsibility so that local boundaries are eliminated?

Over the weekend, the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) called on Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek to expand the fire investigation to include the staffing configuration in East Gwillimbury and the response time, which Wieclawek said last week was not a factor in the fatalities.

OPFFA president Mark McKinnon said in an interview Saturday that although the association recognizes that municipalities set response levels, it expects the fire marshal to lead and recommend acceptable response times.

“We would like him to come out and say what level of response he believes is acceptable, then it would be up to fire chiefs to bring that information to councils and they would have to make political decisions,” McKinnon said.

In Ontario, under the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, the fire marshal can issue guidelines to municipalities on fire protection services. Municipalities then set the level of service, depending on local needs and circumstances.

We already know there were no working smoke alarms on the main floor of the home in East Gwillimbury, where four members of the Dunsmuir family died on Good Friday, and that the fire damaged the home’s other hard-wired smoke alarms.

We know it took the first volunteer firefighters 12.5 minutes to get to the burning home; and we know that nearby career firefighters could have arrived more quickly, but they were in a station in another municipality. 

Some of the people I have spoken with about this fire have wondered whether councillors in East Gwillimbury know or fully understand that the level of service they have set means it can take 12.5 minutes to get to a working fire.

I know, from reading the fire department’s 2012 annual report, that the East Gwillimbury Fire Department responded to 907 calls last year, of which 17 were structure or auto fires, with an average response time of eight minutes and 38 seconds, and an average of 12 firefighters. Of those structure/auto fires, 12 resulted in property damage totalling $1.3 million, with the three most significant being structure fires on Jan. 22 ($500,000), March 31, ($308,000) and May 24 ($500,000).

We also know that East Gwillimbury Fire Chief Ken Beckett has asked council to pay for more career firefighters. One full-time firefighter was hired in 2012, bringing the total to six, or two platoons of three firefighters, which, Beckett said in his report, “enhances the Town’s service level.”

“Timely response, as well as increased on-site personnel, increases our effectiveness when handling emergency incidents such as fires, motor vehicle collisions, specialty rescues and other resource-intensive calls,” Beckett said in the report.

Beckett noted in the document, which was tabled at council on Feb. 13, that, full-time firefighters get to fires more quickly than volunteers.

“The Queensville station has [three] full-time firefighters on duty seven days a week from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. This has helped out with keeping response times low during the day,” Beckett said.

“During 2012, the average time for full time firefighters from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. is six [minutes] 45 [seconds]. The average time for volunteer firefighter from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. is 11 [minutes] 45 [seconds]. This puts the full-time firefighters responding to calls an average of [five] minutes faster.”

To my mind, the fire chief has clearly done his job – by making council aware of the response times and the service-level options; council, it seems, was well informed and has made policy decisions on the level of service.

We know that in Ontario, municipalities are looking hard at their fire departments – the sunshine lists of firefighters who make more than $100,000 that have made headlines lately are not helping – and consultants are recommending that some career departments change to composite systems.

I haven’t yet heard back from the OFM so I don’t know if Wieckawek plans to broaden the scope of the investigation to encompass the response time.

I do know that response times in Ontario are based on NFPA standards, the old 10-firefighters-in-10-minutes-90-per-cent-of-the-time model, or the new risk-response-resource model developed by the OFM, but not yet widely embraced.

In the meantime, the OFM and the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs are working on a companion document that provides templates for chiefs to help them assess risks in their communities and provide detailed information to councils to help them better understand and set response levels.

Neither model involves the removal of municipal boundaries. (The issue of automatic aid has also been raised in discussions I’ve had about the response to the East Gwillimbury fire, but that’s another issue for another day).

If you’ve read <i>Fire Fighting in Canada</i> in the last few years you’ve heard of regionalization. Career firefighters in York Region – which includes East Gwilimbury – are advocating for a regional fire service that drops municipal boundaries, uses localized specialty teams – hazmat in the City of Vaughan, for example – and cuts response times.

Fire is an essential service in most provinces so how is it that there are no minimum service-delivery standards? In Ontario, at least, the province provides funding for police and EMS, but not for fire. There are standards for training but not for service delivery.

I know there were four fatalities in East Gwillimbury.

I know lots of people think that’s not acceptable – regardless of the fact that the lack of working smoke alarms on the main floor delayed the detection of the fire.

I know talking about lessons learned and response models makes people think.

What are you thinking?


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