Fire Fighting in Canada

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Embracing technology

August 31, 2020  By Dave Balding

A recent product presentation that has the potential to revolutionize pump system operation gave me pause for to reflect on the impact of technology and other advancements on fire fighting. This relatively new innovation added a layer over existing technology to enable touch screen operation of virtually all facets of an apparatus’ pumping system.

While there may be pushback from some, it showcased the extent we rely on technology in today’s fire fighting world. Would we be ready to lose touch with another bastion of fire fighting, physically engaging pumps, priming them and operating valves? Possibly.

Make no mistake, I’m not suggesting we, in the fire service (a potentially deadly job invariably with high stakes), dash out and adopt new techniques or advancements with reckless abandonment. I believe in waiting for techniques and technology to progress from their infancy and become proven. It’s incumbent on us to bring our departments forward, keeping pace with new developments.

Is every advancement and technology for every department, in every situation? No, for a couple of reasons. Take CAFS (Compressed Air Foam Systems), for example. While there may be differing views on its effectiveness, I view this innovation as a way to more effectively suppress fire while making the attack easier on responding members. As with any tool or technique, it’s a local decision that should be made by those who know their local circumstances best.


Expense is another consideration when adopting new ideas. Most developments, such as CAFS, come at a financial cost that is not always easily accessible by smaller departments and can make the evaluation and decision-making process even more critical. There are changes that are mandated in the interest of firefighter safety by the various codes and standards agencies that regulate our profession. For example, the change from demand breathing apparatus to positive pressure. Though replacing older models was expensive, the benefits of the new model better ensured the health and safety of our firefighters and, ultimately, outweighed the cost.

Progress changes the way we deal with emergencies in a myriad ways. The way we are summoned to help the public continues to improve. Pagers, now the standard for volunteer departments, were once a new development. Recent years have also seen the introduction of mobile applications, allowing responders to indicate their availability for callouts, alert them to emergency incidents and provide confirmation of their response. There are functions, like mapping, that often provide a better-informed response. The way we see fires changed dramatically with the adoption of thermal-imaging technology, which permitted us to find the seat of a fire, victims and our colleagues. Drones (relatively new concept) are also enhancing our abilities on fires and other responses.

Fire suppression strategies have also evolved. We’ve come a long way from rudimentary nozzles to the complex equipment we use today. For instance, foam and positive pressure ventilation were once new concepts. In its early days, positive pressure ventilation gained criticism that adding air to a building on fire as preposterous but the practice is now accepted and valued. Research has introduced a new understanding of fire behaviour leading to tactics like door control—so vital with vent-controlled fires in volatile buildings. Some have begun using other tactics, including innovations like heavy hydraulic extrication tools, many now available in battery powered models. Those that engage in rope rescue may be utilizing a recently developed piece of hardware: the Multi-Purpose Device (M.P.D.), a Canadian invention which allows change from lowering to raising without changing hardware in a rope system.

These are but a few aspects of how our profession has been altered by technology and progress. It should be kept in mind that the many advancements at our disposal on today’s fire ground augment and improve existing practices and seldom replace previous or more basic elements of fire fighting outright.

Fire is a powerful force and while the rudiments of fire fighting can still be distilled to ‘putting wet on red’ , it’s incumbent on us to make the best tools available to our firefighters: techniques and strategies, hardware or other new developments, to enable them to perform with the utmost safety and effectiveness.

Dave Balding joined the fire service in 1985 and is the fire chief with the Nipawin Fire Department in Saskatchewan. Contact Dave at and follow him on Twitter at @FireChiefDaveB.

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