Fire Fighting in Canada

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From the hip: September 2011

The 2011 federal election is now history. Many were surprised by the outcome; however, regardless of the result, now is the time to follow up with those elected to ensure they live up to the promises in their stump speeches to assist fire, search-and-rescue and emergency-management services.

September 7, 2011
By E. David Hodgins

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The 2011 federal election is now history. Many were surprised by the outcome; however, regardless of the result, now is the time to follow up with those elected to ensure they live up to the promises in their stump speeches to assist fire, search-and-rescue and emergency-management services. And yes, there is an identified need for emergency services across Canada to receive federal assistance.

In my May column I spoke about the need for emergency-services leaders to recognize what is required to have elected officials make decisions that will positively impact public life-safety services. The Reader’s Digest version is that legislators will make decisions based on what will get them the almighty vote. Their drive to secure votes is incessant, so it doesn’t matter that the federal election concluded with a majority government in place and that the next election may not be for another four years. Most of these folks will already be focusing their energies to ensure they position themselves with key stakeholders to remain in power, which translates into getting votes. Given that there is officially no Canadian fire service, how do we best influence federal politicians to provide the support required to meet our very well-defined public-safety role and responsibility in an effective and legitimate way? 

In case you are wondering about my assertion that there is no official Canadian fire service, allow me to explain. Unlike the American system, fire services in Canada are a municipal responsibility with no direct federal connection. There is some provincial/territorial connectivity to local governments, however most provinces and territories are doing their best to step away from any role or responsibility related to the delivery of local fire-department services. This is especially true for emergency-response services. For that matter, the federal and provincial/territorial governments have been very reluctant to provide municipal governments with adequate support for search-and-rescue and emergency-management services as well. Provinces and territories employ fire marshals or fire commissioners to deal with limited and specific legislation, fire-prevention and code issues, but most of these fire-based organizations have been marginalized in the past several years. Oddly, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) recently petitioned the federal government to create a federal fire advisor position, only to have its request denied. Federal politicians are very much aware of the order of government when it comes to provinces and territories and its genuine authority, and they are not about to step on any toes – especially when there is really nothing in it for them.

It would make sense that fire marshals and fire commissioners have a role related to influencing the federal systems. When major events happen, there needs to be a broad-based systems response that connects all the resources necessary. After all, these fire officials working within their jurisdictions do try to connect municipal fire departments with the provincial/territorial systems, so one would think that these senior fire officials should have some influence at the national level. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners (CCFMFC) has, for many years, lacked the focus and motivation to be the national voice for the fire service. I say this having spent a couple of years working as a fire commissioner and member of this organization while trying, with the support of others, to encourage the establishment of a solid vision to be this voice.

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With due respect, fire marshals and fire commissioners have little to no ability to be influential within their home jurisdictions; therefore, it is almost impossible for them to reach up and out to effectively influence on the national scene. To fill this obvious void, the CAFC has stepped up and is very active in dealing with the federal government’s bureaucrats and politicians. Although this has not produced any real results to date, I do applaud the CAFC and the CCFMFC’s efforts to join forces to be better positioned for petitioning, and hopefully influencing, at the federal level.

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and its general president for Canadian operations, Jim Lee, have had much more success dealing with Ottawa. As an example, the federal government provided $2.5 million for the IAFF to provide for hazardous materials/chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear training.

We must understand that elected officials will step up and support emergency services in a real way only when they see something in it for them, and our job is to identify and present what that looks like. For the federal-based petitioning activities of the CAFC and the CCFMFC to be successful, influencing politicians must start at the local level. It truly is up to the front-line, on-the-ground troops to better connect with their local provincial/territorial elected officials and MPs. 

Having said all this, you need to know that I am enormously proud to be a Canadian and extremely proud to be involved as a longtime member of fire, rescue and emergency-management services.


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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