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Flashpoint: September 2011

Elsewhere in this issue of Fire Fighting in Canada there are very good pieces, written by very smart people, about the changes, or lack thereof, to the fire service in Canada in the 10 years since 9-11. I want to talk about what hasn’t changed.

September 7, 2011
By Peter Sells

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Elsewhere in this issue of Fire Fighting in Canada there are very good pieces, written by very smart people, about the changes, or lack thereof, to the fire service in Canada in the 10 years since 9-11. I want to talk about what hasn’t changed.

The reason for our existence is still the prevention of loss of life and property due to fire. All the CBRNE funding you can imagine has not changed our primary purpose, as evidenced by these excerpts from fire-department mission statements:

“To prevent the loss of life and minimize damage to property resulting from fires, environmental, and other disasters.”
– Perth East Fire Department, Ontario

“Committed to the safety of our community, by the delivery of public education, fire suppression and rescue services as required.” 
– Agassiz Fire Department, British Columbia

“To provide service to the community by protecting life, property and
environment through prevention, public education and emergency
response.”
That last excerpt is from Mission, B.C., making it the Mission mission.

Losses due to fire in Canada, both in terms of dollars and human lives, dropped consistently and dramatically in the 20 years prior to the mid-1990s.

Since then, the trend has been downward, but it is levelling off. One frustrating example of lack of change is the fact that I had to do more than an hour of research by telephone and Internet to verify those last two sentences. I examined trends from published U.S. statistics, as well as reports from the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshall, found them to be consistent with each other, and assumed similar trends across Canada. There is no federal office or agency responsible for fire protection, and the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners hasn’t published a national summary since 2002.

So, lacking any hard data and with my assumption in hand, let’s see how we are doing. Here are some news items from the first few weeks of August:

  • Montreal firefighters spent Aug. 17 going door to door in suburban Verdun, installing smoke detectors and promoting fire-safety awareness after a 31-year-old man and his three-year-old son died in a fire. The 28-year-old wife and mother succumbed to smoke inhalation one day later. Firefighters found working smoke alarms in about one-third of homes. 
  • Four members of an Alexandria, Ont., family died as the result of a fire in their home. There were no batteries in their smoke alarms.
  • Two adults in Toronto and one in Huntsville, Ont., died without benefit of working smoke alarms.
  • A cooking fire in Denmark, N.S., put the homeowners in the hospital with burns and smoke inhalation.
  • A garage fire in Winnipeg put a family out of its home. There had been several similar blazes in the weeks prior to the garage fire.
  • Residents in Hamilton and St. Catharines, Ont., Kelowna, B.C., and Carleton County, N.B., were being plagued by serial arson.
  • Two fires were under investigation in Regina, one reported as children playing with matches and the other of suspicious origin.

It’s not all bad news: On Aug. 3, Brampton, Ont., firefighters found that an apartment fire, which started in the kitchen and was cooking related, had been extinguished by the activation of a single fire sprinkler head. The lone occupant escaped unharmed, and property damage was minimal.

There have been no significant advances in the technologies available to the fire service since the introduction of thermal imagers and compressed-air foam in the 1990s, although both have become less expensive and more common. So, we are fighting the same battles with the same weapons. We win some and we lose some. We do have some very good HUSAR teams, but they were not allowed to respond to Haiti or Japan due to the incompetence and cowardice of federal decision makers.

In previous columns, I have expressed frustration that the public does not take its own safety seriously. Average Canadian homeowners would rather install a sprinkler system under the lawn than under the roof. My fear is that the focus on major disasters, terrorist attacks and weapons of mass destruction over the last 10 years has made structural fire fighting seem less exciting and less urgent to us as well.

In a very practical sense, 9-11 caused us to take our eye off the ball. It’s been 10 years: let’s get back in the game.


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire-service management and professional development across North America and internationally. E-mail Peter at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com


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