Fire Fighting in Canada

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From the Hip: May 2012

For most people, it will come as no surprise that emergency-response organizations including police, paramedics, fire and search and rescue are dealing with considerable budget cuts.

April 20, 2012
By E. David Hodgins

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For most people, it will come as no surprise that emergency-response organizations including police, paramedics, fire and search and rescue are dealing with considerable budget cuts.  There is just not enough money to go around, and based on global and national financial troubles, things are not going to get better anytime soon. Despite fiscal constraints, essential public safety services are expected to carry on delivering effective, efficient and quality emergency life-saving aid. Further, these emergency services are duty-bound to do so in a timely manner. Any failures within the response system usually results in a huge public chorus of disapproval. Go figure!  So, what can we do differently to address this challenge? I now sit at the council table as a municipal elected official, and my passion for ensuring that emergency responders are resourced to meet their mandates continues. A solution is for fire department and other emergency organization leaders to recommend provincial or territorial legislation, as well as local bylaws, to allow for cost recovery for emergencies beyond the basic – the abuser-pay approach.

With resources being stretched to their limits and emergency systems struggling to deliver even basic services, there is an unrealistic demand being placed on responders, who expected to respond to widely divergent emergencies beyond what, for lack of a better term, is often referred to as routine. Unfortunately, many of these events that are outside of the norm occur mostly because off ill-advised behaviours – I am talking about the questionable actions of the so called risk-takers, those who like to live on the edge.  Tragically, many of these individuals have gone past the edge and will never return. These are the individuals who believe the laws, regulations and rules are meant for lesser folk and not for them. These individuals, while skiing, ignore the out-of-bounds signage and roped-off areas meant to protect them from avalanches and unsafe slopes.  They refuse to wear protective gear while engaged in sporting activities because the cool people don’t need protection. They drink and drive because they are special and therefore immune from anything bad happening. 

Every day, somewhere in Canada, the media report an emergency event whereby these individuals get themselves into serious, life-threatening situations that requires them to be rescued. And who hustles lights and sirens to save them? Right, the local, underfunded and over-stretched emergency responders. And who pays the bill? Right, you and I, the taxpayer. It’s time to rethink this flawed and unsustainable practice. The abuser-pay approach requires these risk takers cover the life-saving costs for their foolish behaviour. If individuals can’t afford to pay for the cost of a rescue, then they should not become involved in stupid activities. Or perhaps, some people are just special and can afford to buy insurance that will allow them to take gratuitous risks.  Great. Then they won’t mind paying for the sizeable costs involved in responding to their needs and providing rescue services.

Maybe fire departments should develop a menu for the provision of emergency services. On one side, there could be a list of all the services that are available to citizens for no additional fees or charges. This list might include a response to a legitimate medical emergency, or a fire caused by a faulty appliance, or to a motor vehicle collision when no booze or drugs are involved. On the other side would be a list of emergency-response services that come with a charge beyond what is paid for as part of one’s annual municipal tax bill. These could include responding to pick up a climber off the side of a mountain because he/she was not trained, equipped or prepared and got stuck at 5,000 feet. Another legitimate charge would be for responding to the fire that started because someone got drunk and decided to cook fries on the stove top and the grease ignited and spread to engulf the home. Or for the fire that started because John Doe fell asleep with a lit cigarette in hand. How about paying the police each time they respond to a malfunctioning security alarm because the owner refuses to do the maintenance necessary to keep the system operating properly? And I am sure your emergency system’s leadership team can come up with many more potential cost-recovery ideas.

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Apart from the tremendously expensive cost of responding to emergencies, real or caused by stupidity, is the very serious reality that the men and women stepping up to respond put their lives on the line. When someone does something foolish, many lives are put at risk. Perhaps having to pay up for ill-advised actions will reduce the number of these preventable incidents. 


E. David Hodgins has served with fire, rescue and emergency-management organizations at the provincial and municipal levels during his 34-year career. Contact him at e.david.hodgins@shaw.ca


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