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Aug. 2, 2012, Toronto – The headline in the Ottawa Citizen was certainly alarming: Conservatives to douse fire protection program, but that’s what headlines are supposed to do – grab your attention. The first thing I wanted to know was which program was on the chopping block.

August 2, 2012
By Peter Sells

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Aug. 2, 2012, Toronto – The headline in the Ottawa Citizen was certainly alarming: Conservatives to douse fire protection program, but that’s what headlines are supposed to do – grab your attention. The first thing I wanted to know was which program was on the chopping block.

Fire-related engineering services and inspection services in federal government buildings and major public buildings within First Nation communities are currently the responsibility of Fire Protection Services, part of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. This is the program facing the axe, but how could a landlord as huge as the Canadian government simply walk away from fire protection?

Obviously, it can’t. After using words such as douse, scrap and dismantle in the first few paragraphs, the article got down to some details. According to documents obtained by the Citizen, the feds will rely on private fire-protection firms after March 2014. Individual government departments will be responsible for ensuring their buildings meet fire-safety standards. Considering that the federal government maintains 1,400 buildings across Canada, it’s not difficult to imagine that a centralized property-management apparatus would be unwieldy. Perhaps a departmental or regionalized structure is the way to go.

The Citizen quoted two individuals with direct knowledge of the Fire Protection Services program, who both expressed skepticism at the ability of the private sector to provide adequate service. Doug Marshall, president of the Union of National Employees – which represents some of the affected workers – and Jack Almond, a retired fire inspector who worked for the federal government for 16 years, are current and former stakeholders whose opinions and perspective are certainly relevant. However, a 2009 auditor general’s report found that just one-third of the 54 buildings studied had held a fire drill in the previous year and fewer than half of them had fire safety plans in place. The audit concluded that the government had “not effectively managed” the risks related to the health and safety of its workers. Whether this was due to an inefficient structure or chronic understaffing in the face of an expanding mandate for protection of First Nations properties, the bottom line is that the program in its present form is not adequate. The question is whether the private sector can step up to fulfill the government’s needs.

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“Private-sector fire and life safety specialists have provided industry-leading code compliance services to public and private clients for decades,” says Jason Reid, founder and principal of National Life Safety Group.

Property-management firms across Canada are hiring third-party fire-safety consultants to streamline operations, minimize costs, and ensure they are effectively protecting their tenants and employees. An additional benefit in using an external consultancy firm is that performance can be effectively benchmarked and service providers held accountable. As Reid explains, “Quite simply, if consultants underperform or do not live up to contract deliverables, the contract spells out financial penalties including a rapid termination clause. This allows for effective management and quality assurance of the fire safety program.”

Within Canada, many federal and provincial workplaces are already housed in facilities owned and operated by the private sector. Reputable property management firms such as Cadillac Fairview, SNC Lavalin and Dundee REIT have long provided proactive fire-protection programs through code compliance inspections and fire and evacuation planning and training.

According to Reid, “Buildings wholly owned and occupied by government departments are not essentially different than buildings owned by a hotel chain, an insurance company or a major university. They all can benefit from a fire and life safety service provider applying best practices to workplace safety and fire protection.”

We’ve been hearing for at least a generation that our government needs to work more like a business, haven’t we?

A note to the critical reader: When a reporter attributes a decision or action to conservatives or the Harper government rather than the Government of Canada, either the issue at hand is inherently political or the reporter is putting a partisan slant on a policy decision. At first glance, and that is all we have right now, this change of policy appears to be a business decision, a financial housekeeping measure. As taxpayers, we should expect and demand that our resources are being responsibly managed. If fire protection of federal properties can be more efficiently managed on a contracted basis while meeting all standards for life safety, then the government should implement such a strategy.

The onus will be on the fire-protection community and First Nations leadership to hold the feds accountable.

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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