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From the hip: May 2011

Colleagues, it’s time for some serious reflection and straight talk. We need to discuss the sad state of affairs related to public life-safety and emergency management services at all levels of government.

April 28, 2011
By E. David Hodgins

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Colleagues, it’s time for some serious reflection and straight talk. We need to discuss the sad state of affairs related to public life-safety and emergency management services at all levels of government. You may have heard that I retired in September. I am now well positioned to speak and write more candidly about what’s really happening in our services. I plan to confront legislators and other senior decision makers through speaking engagements and through my writing. These individuals need to be held accountable for their lack of support, inaction and poor decisions that have seriously and negatively impacted public life-safety services. We need to talk about what’s amiss within our organizations and, more importantly, how to fix it. There is a lot to do as we seek to bring fire, search-and-rescue and emergency management services to a satisfactory level. This need holds true at all levels of community and government.

I have enjoyed a fantastic career, met some amazing people and gained significant insight into the system. The hard reality is that most emergency service organizations are a kilometre wide and a millimetre deep. This is because, to outsiders, what we do is not important. Don’t get me wrong; our skills are absolutely critical when bad stuff happens. However, the statistics show that bad stuff happens less than five per cent of the time. So, as we go about asking for more in our traditional ways, we are considered a huge pain in the neck. Yes, governments throw a few scraps our way every once in a while to keep us quiet, but mostly they believe we are whining and looking for more control and bigger and better toys. 

How many of you are forced to raise money through boot drives and raffles to deliver emergency response services? It has been my experience that, except for the larger municipalities, most of you operate mainly based on some form of fundraising. Have you ever heard of a public works department selling muffins to build or fix roads, or recreation department staff going door to door to businesses begging for money to buy a new Zamboni? Not likely! Let’s not kid ourselves; this is our reality. Why? Because it’s all about the vote. Most politicians will do whatever it takes to get the vote and most senior bureaucrats will do whatever they need to do to keep the political boss happy. And a happy politician is one who is getting the vote. Once we accept this, we will be better positioned and better able to market emergency services and secure the resources needed to meet our basic mandates. And who requires us to meet identified mandates in the first place? The politicians and senior bureaucrats.

Not all elected officials or senior bureaucrats deliberately ignore our needs, but these folks tend to run in packs, and what the pack wants, the pack gets. When there is a public demand for more health care, education, policing, or ice time at the local rink, guess what wins?

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Public demand influences the decisions made by elected officials and senior bureaucrats. If we have any hope of getting the legislators and other decision makers on side, it will happen predominantly through the public, because they hold the trump card – the vote. Yet, the fact is that most voters have no idea where fire, search-and-rescue and emergency management services come from or how we get to them in their time of need.

I am continually amazed at just how little people know about the who, what and how of emergency services. This is true especially of the travelling public – individuals who are on a road trip or out for a weekend in the wilderness will tell you that if an emergency occurs, they would simply call 911 and within a few minutes the big red truck or search team would be on scene to save them. Little do they know, there are vast areas with no 911 services and a response could take an hour or more. When they are informed of the huge gaps in service that exist, they are shocked and usually ask how the politicians could let this happen. Politicians will ensure legislation, regulations, bylaws and policies are in place to make sure they get the vote. To achieve success, we need to figure out how to effectively and ethically influence those who control and those who receive the votes.


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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