Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Structural Training
Fire Dynamics: September 2013

The Nobel Prize committees and the North American fire service have something in common: both often take a decade or more to recognize vitally important scientific research that has the potential to bring about great change and progress in society.

September 9, 2013
By Ian Bolton


The Nobel Prize committees and the North American fire service have something in common: both often take a decade or more to recognize vitally important scientific research that has the potential to bring about great change and progress in society.

For the fire service, this lack of recognition pertains to the incredibly valuable fire research that has been done over the past two decades by the National Research Council, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Underwriters Laboratory (UL). Today, this disconnection between the fire research and fire departments is persistent and problematic. Though organizations such as UL often release easily accessible and interactive eLearning modules, alongside their fire research reports, these great learning opportunities are rarely seized by fire departments. In fact, the fire research community has been doing everything it can to share its research and help the fire service perform its duties more safely and effectively. But how many of us have used this information to improve our fire-training programs and our fire-ground operations? The answer, unfortunately, is very few. 

Historically, the fire service has been tremendously task-oriented, focusing on the completion of tasks as a measure of success. While completion of tasks is imperative, focusing only on how to perform those tasks, tactics and strategies, rather than why we perform them, is a very dangerous preoccupation. Understanding the why helps firefighters become critical thinkers and fire-dynamic thinkers. It is through theory and quantitative fire research that firefighters can develop this understanding of why: Why does the fire develop in this way? Why does the fire react differently if we ventilate here versus there? Why do our tactics influence fire development? 

Although many of today’s firefighters struggle with this concept, some of the earliest pioneers of the metropolitan fire service did not.


“In order to carry on your business properly, it is necessary for those who practice it to understand not only what they have to do, but why they have to do it,” wrote London Fire Chief Eyre Massey Shaw in 1876. “No fireman can ever be considered to have attained a real proficiency in his business until he has thoroughly mastered this combination of theory and practice.”

Stever Kerber, a fire engineer and director of the Firefighter Safety Research Institute at UL, explains: “Fire research is being done with the fire service and the research is being done in ways the fire service can see and understand. As they see this, they begin to trust the research and open their minds when the results aren’t what they may have expected.”

Trusting the research and opening firefighters’ minds is exactly what the FDNY has been doing over the past year, and now the department leads North America in using fire research to its advantage. Following recent studies that took place on Governors Island in July 2012 in New York, the FDNY was inspired to re-evaluate some of its traditional tactics concerning fire attack and ventilation. Changing an organization as large as the FDNY will not be easy, but with solid research in place to support the efforts, the FDNY leaders are determined to improve firefighter training, safety and efficiency.

“There is always room for improvement, and change is not a four-letter word. We have to be willing to accept change and embrace change,” FDNY Battalion Chief George Healy said, while presenting the results of the study at FDIC in April.

The time for progress and change in the Canadian fire service is now. Over the past decade fire departments across the country have made tremendous progress with many safety-driven initiatives. However, many of these initiatives have been focused primarily on reactionary measures rather than preventive ones. RIT programs, although critical, are reactionary, and training firefighters to stay out of trouble in the first place should be a primary focus. To achieve this, considerable effort should be directed toward developing comprehensive fire-dynamics and fire-behaviour training programs founded on the practical application of fire research.

Improving fire literacy is critical to improving public safety, reducing economic and social loss due to fire, and reducing the dangers of modern fires to firefighters. As the fire environment has drastically changed due to new fuel load characteristics, ventilation profiles and construction methods, the need to continue fire research into the future and apply it to fire training and operations is stronger than ever. If we fail to pursue fire research and apply it to modernize our fire service, it is highly likely that sooner or later we will fail when it counts. 

Ian Bolton has been active in the fire service for 10 years. While working in Australia he achieved instructor level certification in Compartment Fire Behaviour Training (CFBT) and has received advanced training in fire behaviour and ventilation from the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency in Revinge, Sweden. Ian works as a firefighter and lead fire behaviour instructor for the District of North Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service. Contact Ian at

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