Fire Fighting in Canada

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Flashpoint: June 2011

It’s been quite a few weeks for news: the new Conservative majority government; the killing of Osama bin Laden; and record flooding around the Assiniboine, Richelieu and Mississippi rivers. Time will tell if the new government comes through with the tax credit for volunteer firefighters that was in its pre-election budget. With the tenth anniversary of 9-11 coming up, time will also tell if the death of bin Laden makes the world a safer place. What time will tell us about the floods largely depends on how we view time.

May 18, 2011
By Peter Sells

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It’s been quite a few weeks for news: the new Conservative majority government; the killing of Osama bin Laden; and record flooding around the Assiniboine, Richelieu and Mississippi rivers. Time will tell if the new government comes through with the tax credit for volunteer firefighters that was in its pre-election budget. With the tenth anniversary of 9-11 coming up, time will also tell if the death of bin Laden makes the world a safer place. What time will tell us about the floods largely depends on how we view time.

OK, that was a bit philosophical. Let me bring it down to earth: In any given period of time, there will be a worst flood, a worst fire, a worst epidemic and a worst mass-casualty incident. If your perspective is limited to an annual budget cycle, you may look back at a dozen or so years of emergency-response costs and plan accordingly. As a council member or mayor, you may think that a three- or four-year election cycle constitutes a strategic perspective. As a fire chief or town manager, a five- or 10-year plan is typical. Chances are, most of us will get through a career or a lifetime of relatively average occurrences. Mother Nature and Murphy, however, have their own ideas about time and probability.

As I wrote this in early May, the level of the Assiniboine River was the highest in recorded history. The 20 municipalities between Montreal and the United States border were experiencing their highest floodwaters in 150 years. We know that in any period of time greater than a century, there will be a worst flood, a worst fire, etc. Now here’s the part that sometimes comes as a surprise, but really should be intuitively obvious: those worst-in-a-century (or even worst-in-a-millennium) events must take place within some 10-year, five-year or one-year time frame. Therefore, regardless of your perspective of time as it affects strategic planning, consideration must be given to preparation for the big one.

Politicians and emergency planners seem to understand this concept when it applies to major-league natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes or tsunamis. The City of Vancouver protects its downtown areas with the Dedicated Fire Protection System. The system is capable of flowing saltwater from the ocean in the event that an earthquake compromises the domestic water-supply system. Vancouver’s investment is a great example of preparedness. Firefighters in Kobe, Japan, faced many difficulties during the 1995 quake that caused more than 10,000 breaks in the water system. Should a similar event occur in Vancouver, those challenges illustrate the potential cost to Vancouver had it not taken such prudent action. Would anyone question the $52-million cost of the Dedicated Fire Protection System simply because Vancouver has not yet suffered a major earthquake?

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A similar infrastructure project is the City of Winnipeg’s 1960s-era flood-protection system. An International Joint Commission study on the performance of Winnipeg’s system during the 1997 Red River flood found that:
. . . Winnipeg flood defences worked to the limit of their capacity. Winnipeg escaped the damage that could have occurred if the capacity of the flood protection works had been exceeded, or if there had been failures in one or more of the flood protection structures. There is little margin of error if the City was to face a flood similar to the one in 1997.

If you live in a condo, you probably know that your condominium corporation is required to assign a percentage of the money from your monthly maintenance fees into contingency accounts for major repairs such as roof replacement. This is essentially the same strategy as those illustrated above – putting a little aside for a rainy day. Here’s how you can, and should, do the same, personally and professionally:

  • Pay yourself first. Your defined-benefit pension plan, if you have one, should not be your only nest egg. Top up your RRSPs every year.
  • Keep in good physical shape for your 35-year firefighting career.
  • Maintain a tactical reserve of personnel, apparatus and equipment at emergency scenes. It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.
  • Have a progressive program of professional development in your organization, and use it to develop a proactive succession-planning system.

Flood protection, personal finance, incident management and the death of the man who murdered 343 firefighters: I think that covers enough ground for today. As I wrote this, almost 1,000 Canadian Forces soldiers had been deployed to help deal with flooding in Manitoba and Quebec. Since Toronto is unlikely to experience a snowstorm in the next few months, maybe our Forces can get some downtime after the waters recede. Not to minimize what is happening to Canadian farmers, homeowners and businesses this spring, but wouldn’t it be nice if we had to deploy our Canadian troops only to Brandon, Man., or Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.?


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