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Flashpoint: December 2011

I hate reading or quoting Dickens, but I console myself with the knowledge that the same line was spoken by Capt. James T. Kirk in The Wrath of Khan. I want to look at a tale of two fire chiefs – in Prince George, B.C., and Caledon, Ont.

December 5, 2011
By Peter Sells

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I hate reading or quoting Dickens, but I console myself with the knowledge that the same line was spoken by Capt. James T. Kirk in The Wrath of Khan. I want to look at a tale of two fire chiefs – in Prince George, B.C., and Caledon, Ont.

In early November, Prince George Fire Rescue responded to a fire on the fifth floor of an apartment building, rescuing five people from balconies and evacuating 40 to 50 residents, many of them seniors with mobility challenges.

Fire Chief John Lane gave a lot of good material to the media, sticking to his messages. Facts: “Three full crews, the rescue truck, and the assistant chief made up the initial call-out crew when the first alarm came in, sometime between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. . . .” Process: “It was immediately clear that they had a working fire – there were people trapped on the balconies and multiple calls from inside the building . . . so we got the ladder truck down here as quickly as possible . . .” Avoiding speculation (as to smoking being the cause of the fire): “It’s quite preliminary for me to release anything like that, but we’re certainly aware that there were people in the suite and we’re certainly pursuing that avenue in the investigation.”

A job well done by Lane and his team, but was it the best of times? My consistent message is that the best fire fight is the one that doesn’t occur. Sun Tzu said in The Art of War that the best general wins by being in such a strong position as to avoid the potential for conflict. That is what Fire Chief Brad Bigrigg of Caledon Fire & Emergency Services in Ontario attempted to achieve by calling for stricter fire-safety measures at a group home for 50 people living with mental illness. The home operates with just two staff at night; Bigrigg has notified the home to bring the nighttime staffing up to four to comply with code, or face consequences, potentially including eviction and closure.

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The local paper quotes the owner of the group home as believing that the chief is trying to make a name for himself. Even more outrageously, “It’s pretty obvious that the fire chief is bigoted or ignorant about people with mental illness,” said Max Wallace of The Dream Team, a mental health advocacy group, in the Caledon Enterprise. “He seems to believe the residents are physically impaired or invalids.”

What led to this contrast? I see three elements. Chief Lane was dealing with a structural fire response, in which the interests of all parties are aligned: everyone wants a quick resolution with minimal damage. Chief Bigrigg was fulfilling a different responsibility, that of enforcing compliance. These situations involve parties whose immediate interests are in conflict, but whose long-term interests are best served by compliance. Any official exercising statutory authority over a private party can be portrayed as the heavy if the resolution of the issue comes down to eviction or closure. So the first element of contrast is the particular facets of a fire chief’s job that Lane and Bigrigg were fulfilling.

The second contrast is in the stakeholder reaction. In Prince George, support was provided by allied agencies such as EMS, police, transit and health authorities, the city’s communications director, and the Salvation Army. All these resources were directed at ensuring the health and safety of the residents and firefighters. In Caledon, Bigrigg had support of the mayor and was acting within his statutory authority, but the property owner claims that the provincial health ministry sees the regulations as unfair. Media coverage has the owner claiming to have spoken to the office of the fire marshal, but the degree of support for the owner’s position, as reported, is vague. Paradoxically, the advocacy group, which one would expect would support the safest possible living conditions for the residents (i.e. the fire chief’s position) has loudly and irresponsibly portrayed the chief as a bully.

Finally, the role played by local media could hardly be in greater contrast. Media consultants will say that the media can be your partner and get critical messages out to the community. This is the type of support Chief Lane received from the Prince George Citizen and others. The Caledon Enterprise took a different approach, printing inflammatory rhetoric, seemingly to change the focus from bringing the group home into compliance to questioning the fire chief’s character and motives. Another valuable media-relations skill is sticking to your message when dealing with a reporter who may have more to gain through sensationalism than through professional integrity.

In the interest of my own journalistic integrity, I will disclose that John Lane and Brad Bigrigg are my friends. I have the deepest professional respect for them both.


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 peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com


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