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Fire risk for Indigenous people

Here are the details and key findings of the most recent study on the heightened fire risk for Canada’s Indigenous people.

June 7, 2021
By Len Garis and Mandy Desautels

Anew Statistics Canada study has exposed a disturbing heightened fire risk for Canada’s Indigenous people, pointing to the need for improved fire reporting and prevention to protect vulnerable individuals and communities.

Overall, Indigenous people in Canada are five times more likely to die from a fire than the general population, and that risk increases to 10 times if they live on reserve and 17 times if they are Inuit, according to the March 2021 report, commissioned by the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council (NIFSC) Project and funded by Indigenous Services Canada.

“This is disturbing data. We hope to learn more as we approach Stats Canada to investigate the Canadian Coroner and Medical Examiner Database to garner a deeper understanding into the circumstances around the deaths,” said executive director Blaine Wiggins. “We need this information to be culturally sensitive, while we hone our prevention and education programming to address this disproportionate mortality and morbidity risk.”

The report, entitled “Mortality and morbidity related to fire, burns and carbon monoxide poisoning among First Nations people, Métis and Inuit: Findings from the 2011 Canadian Census Health and Environment Cohort,” was authored by Mohan B. Kumar of Statistics Canada’s Centre for Indigenous Statistics and Partnerships and can be found on the NIFSC website at www.indigenousfiresafety.ca/mortality-and-morbidity-report-2021.

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Research revealed significantly higher rates of fire-related death, injury, and hospitalization rates across the board for all Indigenous people, particularly among Inuit people and those living on reserve. It also pointed to the lack of building or fire codes on First Nation reserves and the need for improved fire incident reporting.

The NIFSC Project commissioned this work to help fill the large gap in the reporting of fire incidents, deaths, and injuries for Indigenous people and communities, and to provide information that will support the development of effective prevention and protection measures. The study is believed to be the first in Canada to use a single data source and methodology to examine the rates of mortality and morbidity among First Nations, Métis, and Inuit populations. It then compared these three populations with the general population nationally and regionally.

Key findings
Using data, including the 2011 Canadian Census and 2011-2018 Canadian Vital Statistics database, Statistics Canada examined age-standardized mortality and hospitalization rates related to fire, burns and carbon monoxide poisoning among First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in Canada as compared to the general population.

The key findings are as follows:

  • The fire-related death rate was 1.6 for First Nations, 0.6 for Métis and 5.3 for Inuit people per 100,000 person-years, compared to 0.3 among non-Indigenous people, which is an increased risk of five, two and 17 times, respectively.
  • The fire-related death rate for First Nations people living on reserve was 3.2 per 100,000 person-years. This figure is over 10 times the rate of 0.3 among non-Indigenous people.
  • The burn-related death rate was one death per 100,000 person-years for First Nations people, which is five times the rate of 0.2 among non-Indigenous people.
  • The hospitalization rate for fire injuries was 7.5 for First Nations, 2.8 for Métis and 8.8 for Inuit people per 100,000 person-years, compared to 1.7 among non-Indigenous people, which is an increased risk of four, 1.5 and five times, respectively.
  • The hospitalization rate for burns was 13.9 for First Nations, five for Métis and 13.5 for Inuit people per 100,000 person-years, compared to 4.3 among non-Indigenous people. This is an increased risk of three, 1.2 and three times, respectively.
  • The carbon monoxide death rate as 0.5 for First Nations, 0.7 for Métis and 0.6 for Inuit people per 100,000 person-years, similar to the 0.6 among non-Indigenous people.
  • Building and structural fires were four times more likely to be the cause of death than other types of fires such as ignition of highly flammable materials, forest fires, camp fires, intentional self-harm or assault.
  • Indigenous males suffered statistically more fire-related deaths, burns and hospitalizations than Indigenous women. 

Issues emerging from the study
The research shows that many of the factors affecting fire risk for Indigenous people have also been linked with increased fire risk in the general population. For example, the social determinants leading to higher fire deaths and injury for Indigenous people included poverty, inadequate housing and lack of working smoke alarms. As well, previous analysis dating back to 2001 looked at fire-related deaths among Status Indigenous people in B.C. has suggested an association with lit cigarettes or use of electric heaters near flammable materials, use of faulty electric heaters, unattended cooking oil on stoves and alcohol consumption.

Notable considerations specific to Indigenous populations, according to the report, include underfunding for fire services in Indigenous communities resulting in a lack of fire halls and fire fighting equipment, as well as a lack of legislation mandating compliance with building and fire codes on reserves.

While the new research has helped to coalesce existing data, it reveals significant deficiencies in the comprehensive reporting, collection and analysis of fire mortality and morbidity among Indigenous people at a national level. Many previous data collection efforts focused on individual or a few jurisdictions; information specific to Métis and Inuit populations in particular is lacking. Carbon monoxide data is also limited.

“The increased fire risk for Indigenous people is concerning and challenging; however, we have launched just under 80 programs and services with a proven track record of addressing these issues with non-Indigenous and other vulnerable populations,” Wiggins said. “We hope to see sharp declines in mortality and morbidity as our program and services take hold.”

In the last year, the NIFSC Project has launched dozens of programs that provide evidence-based fire and life safety training and education to more than 650 First Nations communities in Canada. The project, which does not provide funding to communities, but rather offers free fire and life safety training and education programs, seeks to build on-reserve capacity in a variety of areas previously not available to First Nations communities. These include community fire safety, governance support, infrastructure and engineering support, fire department management and operations, and fire investigation services.

To help address the data gaps related to fire incidents on reserves and support effective long-term decision making, the NIFSC Project is also developing a National Incident Reporting System and encouraging First Nations communities to report fire incidents.

Additionally, the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, NIFSC’s parent organization, is advocating for the development of a national First Nations Fire Protection Act and is offering to work with First Nations leadership as a technical resource.

The hope is that by providing Indigenous communities with the same level of fire and life safety service as non-Indigenous communities, their death and injury rates will begin to align with that of the general population.

Wiggins noted that the increased fire risk for Indigenous people should be of prime concern to all fire chiefs across the country.

“A large proportion of Indigenous people live off-reserve and in our communities, and yet their risk is much higher than that of their neighbours. This report is a wake-up call that much more can be done to protect Indigenous people from fire death and injury, wherever they happen to live,” Wiggins said.

“The job of the fire service is to protect all people, including the most vulnerable. We need to make an effort to understand the unique circumstances surrounding the increased risk for Indigenous people and adapt our prevention and protection measures accordingly.”

Information on the NIFSC Project can be found at www.indigenousfiresafety.ca. Download and learn more about the study at www.indigenousfiresafety.ca/mortality-and-morbidity-report-2021. For additional information, contact Len Garis at Len.Garis@indigenousfiresafety.ca.


Len Garis, director of research for the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council, a senior advisor for the Centre for Social Data Insights and Innovation at Statistics Canada, Fire Chief (ret) for the City of Surrey, B.C., associate scientist emeritus , B.C. Injury Research and Prevention “Unit, an adjunct professor” in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and associate to the Centre for Social Research at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), and a member of the Affiliated Research Faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Contact him at Len.Garis@indigenousfiresafety.ca. Mandy Desautels is the director of strategic initiatives at the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada. She holds a B.Sc. in global resource systems from the University of British Columbia and a master’s of healthcare administration from University of British Columbia. Prior to joining the NIFSC Project, she worked for BC Emergency Health Services and prominent NGOs. Contact her at MandyD@afac-apac.ca. 


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