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Features Prevention
Fully Engaged: October 2011


September 28, 2011
By Ken Sheridan

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Do you ever have the feeling that someone is watching you? Abnormal paranoia aside, we all probably do.

Do you ever have the feeling that someone is watching you? Abnormal paranoia aside, we all probably do.

That’s because someone is watching. Actually, lots of people are watching – the public, our peers and, most certainly, council. Why? It’s not because they think we are not doing a good job; they just want to know why it costs so much to do it.

I have friends in large, city fire departments and in small, rural ones, all commissioned to do a job and all constantly questioned and scrutinized about how much money it costs to do that job, and whether the outcomes outweigh the consequences of not doing the job at all.

This may seem silly to us in the fire service. We all can justify what we do, or at least I hope we can; the fire service is most certainly valuable and necessary to the communities in which we live and work.

However, the battle for lower taxes and high output of public services has been renewed with the election in Toronto of Mayor Rob Ford, and the Ford administration’s mandate of lower taxes – and, therefore, service cuts – is likely to ripple across the country. Now is a good time for all fire services to consider their funding models and the need to focus more on fire prevention and public education in the face of cuts to operations.

Cost-conscious councillors are challenging the budgets of yesteryear as newer programs (such as restoration of historic buildings, more nature trails and increased social programs) present competition for the dollars that used to go to the fire department and other basic services.

Although provincial and federal governments do offer grants for some of these programs, the grants are often one-time financial giveaways and the municipality is then forced to maintain those worthy initiatives. These projects cause our cities, towns and villages to demand financial accountability. It’s not always that there is less tax money, rather that there are more things and programs on which it needs to be spent.

Many municipal councils are demanding cuts to all municipal programs and departments – fire included – often to fund other areas. Many Canadian fire departments are going to feel the cuts deeply.

If this is you – if it’s not now then it will be down the road – how can your department cope with a zero increase in your 2012 budget, or worse, a reduction in funds?

My sense is to think beyond our current situation and look into the future. Ask where you see the fire service in five or 10 years, or how your municipality will look, because your municipality’s goals and objectives directly affect your future, both personally and professionally. Before we can find answers, we have to know what questions to ask. The survival of your fire service depends on knowing the questions and then developing a plan for the future.

This is not a doom-and-gloom situation. There are many solutions, but fire-service personnel have to know what we want and need and understand how fire services of the future will work, and then work toward that vision. It’s not only firefighters and fire-service leaders who have to examine this. Provincial governments must be lobbied and informed of the challenges that face the fire services today and in the future so that change and improvement can be achieved. Areas such as service levels, fire prevention and public education must be better defined.

(Organizations such as provincial associations of fire chiefs, training officers and fire-prevention officers are bringing forward issues and they need our support. Fighting for what we have is commonplace; if it can’t be justified then alternatives must be examined. Be prepared to change. If your thought process of having fire trucks in the bay of your fire hall is good enough to face the future, it is not.)

The cost of running a fire department is astronomical. Pumper trucks cost $350,000 (and up), aerial trucks cost more than $1 million. There are not as many fires as there used to be, yet dollar losses due to fire continue to increase. Of all the measures we’ve taken and money that has been spent, our fire death rate is almost the worst in the western world. Does this add up to you?

If we are really in this business to save lives and property, why are we fighting change? Perhaps we have not come to the point where we must let go of the glamour of fighting fires and accept that we don’t want people to have fires and be hurt or killed by them.

We must continue to be creative and accept the fact that life in the fire service is an evolution. I really believe that more fire prevention and public education is the key to our communities’ best chance against fire. Some countries in the Far East realized this a long time ago. Recently appointed Tokyo Fire Chief Yoshio Kitamura stated after a major earthquake in eastern Japan, “We need to promote overall earthquake safety measures, meet the public demand for advanced emergency medical treatment, strengthen community disaster preparedness, and promote fire prevention with the latest fire protection technology.”

His approach seems quite clear on the need to educate and promote preparedness. We have come a long way over the last few years in this area of emergency preparedness through education from a global perspective; however we must see the future with fewer fires through the same approach. Fires have to be reduced; it’s just costing too much.  


Ken Sheridan is captain of fire prevention in Norfolk County, Ont. He is a certified fire prevention officer and certified fire and life safety educator for the Province of Ontario. He is a graduate of the Dalhousie University fire administration program and has more than 21 years in fire suppression and fire prevention. Contact him at ken.sheridan@norfolkcounty.ca


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