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July 19, 2012, Toronto – In my December 2011 Flashpoint column, I quoted from A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I can’t use that quote again, so let’s go in a few chapters to this . . .

July 19, 2012
By Peter Sells

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July 19, 2012, Toronto – In my December 2011 Flashpoint column, I quoted from A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I can’t use that quote again, so let’s go in a few chapters to this:

“In the fair city of this vision, there were airy galleries from which the loves and graces looked upon him, gardens in which the fruits of life hung ripening, waters of Hope that sparkled in his sight.”

It sounds like a nice place. I wonder if it has a fire department.

Today’s version will be a tale of two new fire chiefs, recruited into the top jobs in two of Canada’s largest fire/rescue services. Both have stepped into organizations undergoing intense scrutiny and facing structural change. Both have strong track records of success in articulating their vision and realizing lofty goals. Both are now facing the toughest challenges of their careers.

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Doug Trussler started as a firefighter in Toronto, rose through the ranks and was recruited as fire chief of West Vancouver before moving to the neighbouring District of North Vancouver. At the beginning of this year, Trussler accepted the reigns of Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency (HRFE), Canada’s oldest fire department. In May 2012, the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) tendered for a comprehensive fire service study. The scope of the study was to include evaluations of fire risk, fire-protection levels (including a rigorous analysis of water-supply systems for fire fighting), distribution of stations, response boundaries, apparatus fleet, and organizational agreements and contracts. The overarching goal of the study would be to identify opportunities to improve HRM’s insurance ratings.

Of course, Trussler has been busy with things other than hiring consultants. Earlier this week, as reported on firefightingincanada.com, HRM terminated the employment of nine personnel. The elimination of these positions is expected to trim HRM’s budget by about $1 million per year.

“This was a realignment process, a review,” Trussler said. “Every business unit in HRM has gone through this process. [It’s] to make more chiefs operational and put them in the communities that they serve.”

The realignment eliminated the rank of assistant deputy chief, of which there were three, along with two administrative support staff. Also let go were two division chiefs, one district chief and one office manager. For perspective, HRFE has a complement of 1,129 career and volunteer firefighters, so the reduction is less than one per cent of total staffing and will not result in any impact on the fire ground.

Our second fire chief is Jim Sales, who started as a firefighter in Edmonton and rose through the ranks into the chief’s position before being recruited as fire chief of the town of Markham, Ont. Sales was kicked upstairs into a commissioner’s role in Markham before moving to a similar senior management position as general manager of community operations for the City of Barrie, Ont., and finally being named last week as the new fire chief of Toronto Fire Services (TFS). Sales has yet to begin working at the helm of Canada’s largest fire service, but let’s look at some similarities between the situations he will face and the waters through which Trussler is navigating.

In February, the City of Toronto tendered for a service and organizational review of Toronto Emergency Medical Services and Toronto Fire Services. As in Halifax, the Toronto review is not unique to fire and EMS; all operating functions of the city have been under scrutiny. What is different is the organizational climate under which the reviews are happening. The HRFE study is intended to produce insurance savings to taxpayers through more effective levels of fire protection. That goal is not stated or implied in Toronto’s review. In fact, the operational review is taking place after a 2011 core services review identified the following opportunities (among others) for potential savings in TFS:

• Consider reducing the range of medical calls to which the fire department responds.
• Consider integrating EMS and fire organizationally and developing new models to shift more resources to EMS response and fewer to fire response over time.

The second item on that list implicitly supposes that organizational efficiency would be realized through more EMS resources at the expense of fewer firefighting resources. This is the atmosphere that Sales will find himself breathing very shortly. What sticks out is that the potential savings opportunity was not written in an objective rhetorical style, such as, “Consider integrating EMS and fire organizationally and developing appropriate new models for optimal resource allocation over time.” I have written here before that any increase in EMS resources does not and cannot reduce the community’s need for fire protection. Sales will be inheriting a naïve fire-protection strategy akin to a red herring chasing a wild goose.

In an interview earlier this week with the Toronto Star, Sales said, “It’s really about what’s the best model for Toronto. It’s really doing an analysis, can it be done and what would the benefit be? Is it to improve service or cost or both? When I had conversations with members of council [during the hiring phase], they’re saying we want to improve response times.” Sales is a very intelligent man, he clearly knows that improving response times while realizing cost savings and reductions in resources are akin to doing more with less.

As for organizational structure, time will tell. TFS has a significant number of vacancies in the senior management tiers. Sales will have the ability to select and restructure his key personnel in fairly short order if he sees fit to do so. Trussler eliminated an entire tier of the HRFE management. Can TFS – or a merged TFS/TEMS – do likewise?

What waters of hope will sparkle, what fruitful gardens will grow in the fair city of this new vision?

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. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com.


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