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Flashpoint: May 2009

It has been raining cats and dogs here in Dubai this week, and the panic in the streets is actually quite amusing. It hasn’t rained this much in Dubai in many years. Global wetting? Who knows, go ask Al Gore. But, to put it in perspective, drivers here don’t often have to deal with wet roads. So when you are driving your Land Rover at 175 km/h on the shoulder it can be hard to stop. Not even the slightest exaggeration there, by the way.

April 22, 2009
By Peter Sells

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"We work around the clock, because accidents don’t keep time.”

Public awareness message by Dubai civil defence

Dubai, UAE – Not much of a whine from me this month, just some reflection on the dichotomy of our mission.

It has been raining cats and dogs here in Dubai this week, and the panic in the streets is actually quite amusing. It hasn’t rained this much in Dubai in many years. Global wetting? Who knows, go ask Al Gore. But, to put it in perspective, drivers here don’t often have to deal with wet roads. So when you are driving your Land Rover at 175 km/h on the shoulder it can be hard to stop. Not even the slightest exaggeration there, by the way.

So, I am extremely cautious as a pedestrian here, which is one big difference compared to back home in Mississauga (where I am just very cautious).

One thing that is the same, however, is the constant presence of public awareness messaging from the local fire service. Ever since I moved to Mississauga 12 years ago, I have been impressed with the consistent and seasonal messages that are displayed outside each fire hall.

Right now, the message is a warning about creeks and rivers running high. At other times it might be about smoke alarms (change your clock, change your battery), safe trick or treating or Christmas-tree fire prevention. The key is that the messages are the same across the city and are updated regularly and strategically.

So, as I was walking along Mankhool Road the other day, between Al Kuwait Street and Tariq Bin Ziyad Road, my attention was drawn to a larger than life-sized poster of one of my ”boys”.  Major Ali Hassan Al Muttawa was one of the Dubai civil defence officers I had the pleasure of hosting in Toronto 10 years ago.  He has gone on to become an operations manager responsible for emergency planning, communications and public education. There he is, staring confidently across the busy street, with the caption “We care around the clock”.  Nearby, in English and in Arabic, are posters that echo that message.

As poor as our fire safety record is in Canada, we take a lot of things for granted.  Here in Dubai, like in Europe, it is common for each residence to have a 22-kilogram cylinder of propane in the kitchen for cooking. Sometimes there is more than one cylinder in the kitchen. Can you imagine that in Canada?

Technically, in Canada, we can have barbeques on our balconies in some locations, but we’re not supposed to bring the cylinders through the building.

Here, delivery trucks make regular rounds exchanging full and empty cylinders, just like the milkman brought fresh milk and took away the empty bottles when we were kids. Well, some of us remember that far back.

So, here, every apartment fire has the potential to release the equivalent of two of our barbeque cylinders into the fuel load. Or it could BLEVE and really make a mess of your day.

Different building construction types, different fire problems, but one thing that is the same is the need to communicate our mission to the people we serve. And the odd thing about that mission is that on one hand, we struggle to maintain our staffing and equipment levels to keep our insurance ratings low, and simultaneously spend a great deal of effort on reducing the instance of fire through public awareness and education. The insurance companies would love it if there were a brand new fire truck on every corner, yet part of the fire chief’s duty is to attempt to reduce fire occurrences to zero.

So which is the ideal situation? Aggressive and expensive active fire-protection measures to ensure the fastest possible response, or a society of eternally diligent people living in non-combustible buildings eating raw vegetables and sashimi? Defend the need for a new apparatus one day, try as hard as you can to make your job redundant the next.

We are not alone in this paradox. Excellent crime prevention would make police unnecessary. We all want to be secure and well defended by our armed forces, but don’t we also want a world in which the soldiers are out of things to do?

Lastly, a remembrance that the one message I have seen too often on the signs outside the Mississauga fire halls are the condolences for the families of fallen firefighters and soldiers.


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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