Fire Fighting in Canada

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Flashpoint: Is fire fighting a profession or a skilled trade?

I remember when I first got my passport that I had to get the photo verified by a guarantor who was someone who had known me for at least two years and was a member of one of a specific set of occupations. “Medical doctor” being on the list, I got my photo verified by my wife’s cousin, whom I have referred to ever since as “my gynecologist”. But I always wondered why doctors, lawyers, judges and the like were trustworthy enough to provide this service, but a fire captain or fire chief was not.

April 29, 2008
By Peter Sells

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I remember when I first got my passport that I had to get the photo verified by a guarantor who was someone who had known me for at least two years and was a member of one of a specific set of occupations. “Medical doctor” being on the list, I got my photo verified by my wife’s cousin, whom I have referred to ever since as “my gynecologist”. But I always wondered why doctors, lawyers, judges and the like were trustworthy enough to provide this service, but a fire captain or fire chief was not.

The occupations listed as guarantors were all either officers of the court (magistrates, notaries public, police officers) or members of “the professions” (doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, pharmacists, etc.). What distinguishes a profession from an occupation from just a plain old job? According to the New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, a profession is the transformation of a trade or occupation through “the development of formal qualifications based upon education and examinations, the emergence of regulatory bodies with powers to admit and discipline members, and some degree of monopoly rights.”

Based on those criteria, I have to question whether fire fighting can be considered a profession. Now, before the villagers come storming up the hill by torchlight, that does not mean that firefighters cannot exhibit and exemplify professionalism.  The two terms do not mean exactly the same thing. Professionalization, which is the transformation process referred to above, requires a series of steps: the activity must become a full-time occupation; training schools must be established with links to universities; professional organizations must be formed; legal support for exclusion must be gained; and a formal code of ethics must be created.

Fire fighting has been a full-time occupation for centuries. Some of our training organizations are accredited through post-secondary institutions and momentum is building in that direction. We have professional organizations in the sense that is meant here, but only at the upper ranks of our industry (ie; International Association of Fire Chiefs). We have no exclusive rights to practise fire fighting, and no specific firefighting code of ethics.

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So if fire fighting does not meet the criteria of a profession, can we at least consider it a skilled trade? Well, according to the Trades Qualification and Apprenticeship Act of Ontario, a trade “includes an industry, craft, occupation, vocation or business or any branch thereof”.  So far, so good. A “certified trade” is a trade which the Lieutenant Governor in Council has designated as such, and may have provisions for separate branches or classifications within the trade.  Once a trade is certified in this way, “No person, other than an apprentice or a person of a class that is exempt from this section . . . shall work or be employed in a certified trade unless he or she holds a subsisting certificate of qualification in the certified trade.”

There are certification systems for firefighters in every jurisdiction across North America, but to my knowledge, none is as stringent or exclusive as the certified trade process outlined in the legislation described above. We have been reaching for the stars of professionalism, and all the while a process is in place across the trades of the construction industry that we have not pursued. We have been equating our qualifications with those of doctors and lawyers, whereas we have yet to achieve the same status as glaziers, stone masons or (ironically) sprinkler installers.

If as an industry we are truly committed to a process of professionalization, there would be no better place to start than to work towards the designation of fire fighting as a certified trade. Separate branches or classifications could be developed to reflect specific skill sets, so that a hazmat technician or technical rescue specialist could be specifically qualified and remunerated as such. Towns requiring only paid-on-call personnel with basic firefighting and auto extrication skills could have a means of defining their needs and controlling their costs. And officer qualifications could be made to be rigorous and meaningful, so we could finally rise above the ridiculous concept of promotion by seniority.

Unless and until we achieve such levels of technical expertise, academic rigor and quality assurance as are required of ironworkers and steamfitters, the term “professional firefighter” will mean little more in reality than “professional hockey player” or “professional musician”. Getting paid only means that you have a job.

The passport application system has since changed, by the way, so that any passport holder can act as guarantor for another. I believe this to be a positive step, since the practice of a family doctor charging $20 to sign the back of my kids’ photos always struck me as highly unprofessional.

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 councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers Canada Branch.


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