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Flashpoint: November 2011

I was giving a demonstration of the Toronto Fire Academy’s then-new propane-fuelled burn house to a group of fire buffs from Buffalo, N.Y. I placed my helmet and gloves on the ground against a wall and went inside to set the controls.

November 14, 2011  By Peter Sells

I was giving a demonstration of the Toronto Fire Academy’s then-new propane-fuelled burn house to a group of fire buffs from Buffalo, N.Y. I placed my helmet and gloves on the ground against a wall and went inside to set the controls. Coming back outside, I bent down to pick up my gear. An older member of the group, seated nearby in a wheelchair with a blanket around his legs, grumbled out to me, “Ya hurt yer back, didn’t ya?” A bit taken by surprise, I replied, “Yeah, about a year ago, but it’s OK now.” “No, it’s not. I’m a retired fire department doctor. I know a back injury when I see one.” “Well, I’d like to tell you a heroic story, but I did this lifting my briefcase out of the backseat of my car.” He said, “You can do that one lifting up a telephone.”

Although I got a real kick out of that conversation, I tend to remember it every couple of years just after I stand up, step sideways, reach for a can of soup off a store shelf, or take whatever action that precipitates a lower back spasm and puts me through two or three days of stiffness and hobbling. The topic of the month is fire apparatus, so let’s look at a couple of safe apparatus behaviours that might prevent you from joining me in the Naproxen line at the drug store.

When I first injured my back, I was bent over trying to lift a moderately heavy object with my arm fully extended. “Poink!” I don’t know if it was actually audible. I do know that if I was designing a fire apparatus, I wouldn’t mount a rack for a portable generator in an upper compartment. Modern apparatus design includes planning what equipment goes where.

Heavy items that are intended to be carried by one person should be low and easily reachable without bending and extension. Roll-out racks are great for making tools accessible; the same principle applies to heavier items designed to be carried by two or more firefighters. Hydraulic movable ladder racks are a great example of ergonomic design to limit the potential for injury. Proper distribution of equipment can also help your apparatus from suffering the mechanical equivalent of a back spasm, by limiting stresses on the chassis.


Another safe apparatus behaviour is the three-point mount/dismount to avoid back and ankle injuries. David Ross, chief health and safety officer for Toronto Fire Services, recommends a technique in which firefighters maintain three points of contact at all times with handrails and steps, while climbing on or off of an apparatus, until they are either fully aboard or fully on the ground.

“Firefighters should always face the apparatus when mounting or dismounting.” says Ross. “Apparatus steps often have no back plate, so by facing the apparatus the firefighter’s boot is able to make the fullest possible contact with the step. Their weight is on the ball of the foot instead of the heel.

“Apparatus should always be at a complete stop when firefighters are mounting or dismounting,” Ross says. “Yes, you are responding to emergencies, but you are going to be getting on and off of fire apparatus thousands of times over your career. Make sure each step you take is taken safely.”

The quintessential safe apparatus behaviour is the fastening of seatbelts. This is easy so I won’t belabour the point. I did a quick review of the website of the International First Responder Seatbelt Pledge. There are only five Canadian departments listed and two of them, Mnjikaning Fire Rescue Service and Chippewas of Rama Fire Rescue Service, are the same department before and after a name change. So, just four out of 3,500 Canadian fire departments have pledged to be 100 per cent seatbelt compliant.

One of the most valuable uses of any type of fire apparatus on the scene of an incident on a roadway is as a shield to protect firefighters and other emergency responders from passing traffic. Tactics have been developed for the placement of fire apparatus in response to numerous instances of emergency responders being severely injured or killed at the scene of a collision or vehicle fire. Training of all emergency responders in the safe tactical positioning of apparatus and the adoption of this practice can save the lives of firefighters, EMTs and law enforcement personnel. The safety of our people at the (considerable) expense of a big shiny new fire truck is a bargain.

Safe apparatus behaviours start with safety-minded leadership. If the captain wants the truck washed, the truck gets washed. If the captain says it’s time to do station maintenance, thve floor gets mopped. In a paramilitary organization like the fire service, whatever the boss says, goes. What, then, should the captain do to foster safe apparatus behaviours? It is incumbent on all fire officers to exercise diligence and discipline to ensure compliance by all members of their crews with seatbelt regulations and all other safety rules. It is equally important that fire officers lead by example, fasten their own seatbelts and use the three-point mount/dismount. Whether the firefighters are complying because the captain said so, or because the behaviour has become ingrained, the result is the same – the firefighters are safer.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire-service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. E-mail Peter at

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