Fire Fighting in Canada

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June 30, 2015, Toronto – Did you know that Ottawa announced on Friday funding for five projects to help first responders – three for firefighters, two for paramedics?

If you did, it’s probably because you read it here, on our website, after we promoted our story on Twitter and Facebook Friday afternoon. No other media (that we could find) carried the story about funding for a database for fire stats, and studies on wildfire patterns and recruitment and retention in Alberta.

The government says the five projects are part of a $12-million investment in 24 projects under the Canadian Safety and Security Program.

We had a heads-up about what was supposed to be a news conference in Halifax Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. Atlantic time (who announces anything at 3 p.m. on a Friday?) with Julian Fantino, the associate minister of National Defence, and CAFC president Paul Boissonneault – although we weren’t aware of the four other projects, only the database.

Neither, apparently, was anyone else who has anything to do with the fire service in Canada.

The news conference was hastily called and sparsely attended, I’m told; the Atlantic bureau of The Canadian Press had no knowledge of it – I checked.

The CAFC and people like Surrey, B.C., Fire Chief Len Garis have been lobbying government about the database for ages; it’s an $850,000 commitment for a three-year pilot project.

Recruitment and retention, particularly in western Canada, is a significant challenge, so much so that Alberta’s chiefs developed an outreach program dubbed Answer the Call, which has been adopted by the CAFC and was launched in May.

The CAFC, I’m told, had no knowledge of the government’s plan to study recruitment and retention in Alberta or the funding for the project. Nor did Alberta’s chiefs. The president of the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association, Peter Krich, was the lead on the Answer the Call project, and even he didn’t know. The study will be led by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, partnered with Social Research Development Corporation, which, as far as I can tell, would have applied to Defence Research and Development Canada for the funding. I’ve Googled both of those organizations and, for the life of me, I can’t make the connection to fire-service recruitment and retention.

It’s all a bit bizarre given that the Alberta chiefs have already studied recruitment and retention – the 2010 report is right here on my desk. We know there’s a problem and the AFCA has already taken action, so specifically what these two research organizations are going to study is beyond me – the press release and backgrounder are light on details.

Ontario’s chiefs were out of the loop on all this too.

What gives?

The Harper government is in a tailspin. Although $12 million is no great shakes in terms of government spending, it’s more than Ottawa has done for first responders recently – since it scrapped funding for heavy urban search and rescue (HUSAR), closed the Canadian Emergency Preparedness College and essentially ignored requests for a national fire advisor. The federal tax credit for firefighters announced in 2011 was nice, but does nothing to help community safety.

With Canadians going to the polls in October – and Harper in trouble over Senate spending, among other things – you’d think someone connected with Defence Research and Development Canada (which does some great work) or Public Safety Canada might have connected the dots and let the affected parties in on the secret, encouraged some promotion.

Or maybe the powers that be didn’t want to be reminded about the lack of federal funding for the firefighting/EMS and rescue side of safety. You all remember from the Elliot Lake mall collapse aftermath that in most, if not all Canadian jurisdictions, rescue is the purview of fire, not police or any other response agency. Which leads us, of course, to Ottawa’s decision two years ago to nix funding for Canada’s HUSASR teams.

Maybe the dollar figure for the five projects is so insignificant (it’s not clear how much of the $12 million is allotted to the fire and paramedic research), and the projects so academic – most don’t really do anything for first responders in the short term – that Ottawa didn’t deem Friday’s announcement particularly important so didn’t bother making a kerfuffle about it.

Maybe Ottawa didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that empirical evidence from the database will, I expect, be used to prove that emergency services need better funding for PPE and training, and that the obvious target for that funding will be the federal government.

I guess it doesn’t matter. Stephen Harper doesn’t like media, although mainstream reporters likely would have put a positive spin on this announcement – even with Fantino as the face of it.

A few million in federal funding for fire and EMS projects isn’t really a Halifax Herald or Canadian Press story; for us – and for you – it’s news.

Would have been nice had it been properly communicated.

June 30, 2015 
By Laura King

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