Fire Fighting in Canada

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Guest column: November 2011

The Canadian military and the fire service share a proud history dating back to the First World War.

November 14, 2011 
By William Elliott

The Canadian military and the fire service share a proud history dating back to the First World War. Today, Canadian Forces (CF) bases boast full-time fire departments, safeguarding assets and infrastructure that represent a significant portion of Canada’s investment in national sovereignty and defence. These highly trained professionals entail both Department of National Defence (DND) civilian firefighters and Canadian Forces military members.

More than 570 military firefighters, consisting of regular force and primary reservists, and more than 500 DND civilian firefighters, serve their country on CF air wings, bases, ships and deployed operations. This ranks the DND/CF Fire Service among the largest fire departments in the country, responding to more than 10,000 calls annually. The fire service provides emergency response to multiple incidents, including aircraft rescue and fire fighting (ARFF), structural protection, rescue, emergency medical response (EMR), and hazmat response. Typical ARFF responses vary from in-flight emergencies, such as smoke in cockpits, engine malfunctions or, in the worst case, actual crashes. Fortunately, major structural fires are less common due to the DND/CF’s outstanding fire prevention program. Like civilian departments, EMR calls are far too common and account for a large number of the overall responses. Many of our firefighters supplement their experience by joining local volunteer departments, especially in rural areas, where these departments enjoy the benefits of the military firefighters’ unique skills. In addition to these core responses, DND civilian firefighters deal with area-specific hazards such as response to ships in dockyards and ammunition and range hazards at army bases.

For military operations, there are more than 80 CF firefighters serving aboard 17 of Her Majesty’s Canadian ships, providing both helicopter ARFF protection and shipboard fire fighting. There are also numerous coast-to-coast locations, where CF firefighters serve as fire prevention and engineering subject matter experts. CF firefighters also deploy in support of CF operations, both domestically and abroad. Ten CF firefighters are deployed in Afghanistan, providing camp fire protection and response as well as rescue outside the camp. Within 48 hours of the earthquake in Haiti, the CF’s response, Op Hestia, deployed 15 personnel to perform urban search and rescue, as well as an additional six to provide ARFF and fire protection at the CF airhead. During the Winter Olympics, 29 firefighters were stationed in the B.C. interior, in support of Olympic security, the largest CF firefighter deployment undertaken since the Second World War.

DND/CF firefighters fall under the functional leadership of the Canadian Forces Fire Marshal, Lt.-Col. Pat Bouffard. He and his staff, based at Ottawa’s Department of National Defence headquarters, provide policy direction, fire engineering and prevention services, compliance audits, support to deployed operations, and develop specifications for standardized equipment and vehicle procurement, such as the newly acquired fleet of ARFF E-One Titans and Fort Garry pumpers.


DND/CF firefighters receive their training at the Canadian Forces Fire and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) Academy (CFFCA) at CFB Borden, Ont. The Academy’s fire-training squadron provides instruction from basic firefighting skills to managing a complex, multi-level response. The apprentice course covers the basics of fire fighting, including driving and operating structural and ARFF apparatuses – all combined, over 151 training days. It includes difficult rescue and hazmat ops level training and EMR certification. After a minimum of 18 months in a fire hall completing their on-the-job-experience packages, personnel are eligible to return for the 104-day journeyman course, to confirm and refine their skills. The supervisor course takes 80 days and concentrates on the command and control aspects of fire fighting while leading a team on an interior attack and running a scene from the outside. Finally, the 25-day-manager level is for senior personnel, preparing them for a deputy fire chief position, both administratively and operationally.

Training at all levels encompasses structural, difficult rescue and ARFF practical scenarios in an expansive outdoor training area, with the exception of the simulator-based manager course. The training area, aptly referred to as Disaster Village, includes three structural towers, three hydrocarbon burning ARFF aircraft mockups, a confined-space rescue maze and a number of derailed freight and tanker train cars. Other course content includes numerous classroom hours on fire inspection codes and reference material, various types of fitted suppression systems and wildland fire fighting. CFFCA also offers specialty courses.

Although in most locations DND/CF firefighters do not typically experience the call volume of an average city department, paying homage to a successful fire-prevention and education program, both DND civilian and CF military firefighters encounter a variety of unique challenges found only in the military environment. The learning process continues throughout their careers, coupled with a wide range of experiences and unique skills that provide for successful interactions between DND/CF firefighters and local fire departments.

WO Elliott is a 20-year member of the Canadian Forces with 18 years of firefighting experience, having served as a camp fire chief in the Middle East and aboard HMCS Toronto in the Persian Gulf. He is currently a senior instructor at the Canadian Forces Fire and CBRN Academy (CFFCA).

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