Fire Fighting in Canada

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Industry Outlook: February 2012

The greatest challenge for first responders called to a major industrial emergency is the co-ordination of response actions.

February 14, 2012 
By Mike Burzek

The greatest challenge for first responders called to a major industrial emergency is the co-ordination of response actions. How prepared are we? And more importantly, if or when a disaster occurs, how do we facilitate a multi-level layered response, especially considering that an effective emergency response requires detailed pre-planning and extensive training with various agencies and government authorities – federal, provincial, regional and/or municipal, each with a stake in the outcome – while saving lives and protecting the public?

The role of industry is equally important and a close look at and understanding of the petroleum and natural gas industry in Canada shows the importance of this interface among first responders, government agencies and industry. A lack of co-ordination can have disastrous consequences.

Any emergency response must begin with a mutual understanding of common response goals and objectives – a priority action approach. These priorities are fairly consistent across Canada, focusing on responder safety as the No. 1 objective; then, saving lives and reducing human suffering; next, the protection of property – especially government or critical infrastructure; and lastly, reducing or mitigating environmental damage and economic losses. Tactically, each priority has its challenges; some may require greater resources and can morph into an operational or logistical nightmare very quickly. But adherence to a hierarchy of response objectives assists emergency personnel. Tackling too many issues at the same time can quickly overwhelm even the most experienced veterans in the field.

Poor or unreliable communication can also complicate or impair an effective and timely response.


Communication systems among, and with, industry partners and response agencies must be routinely tested. The case study of 9-11, although reviewed and discussed ad nauseam, is an eternal reminder of the importance of communication among different agencies. A seemingly obvious gaff, such as allowing multiple radio frequencies during an emergency, demonstrates how quickly a situation can deteriorate. A functional test of communications can readily identify potential gaps in the system; methods can be enhanced; backup systems can be developed and deployed as necessary. There is no room for error – emergency personnel must be able to communicate effectively at all times.

A misunderstanding of roles and responsibilities can also impact layered response and co-ordination. Many jurisdictional boundaries are erased in the event of a major disaster, such as a pipeline rupture near a main waterway, or a massive explosion in an urban centre. Many levels of government, first responders, and industry resources are dispatched to the scene, each with a vested interest and authority to make critical decisions. For example, industry responders will focus primarily on hazard control and/or containment; emergency services will isolate the affected area(s) and set up the appropriate zones and staging areas; others will be tasked with addressing the media. It is imperative that not only the respective agencies or responders know their individual roles, but that they are also aware of the roles of all the other agencies or authorities. This acknowledgment and co-operation solidifies the command structure and avoids confusion during the emergency.

Once the objectives are communicated and the roles clarified, an organizational structure of command must be implemented, in which each role is assigned to appropriate personnel to maintain a reasonable span of control. Responsibilities are spread out and manageable, enabling teams to focus on their objectives. Section leads or chiefs then report directly to the incident commander through regular briefings and situation updates. Response actions are easily prioritized, categorized and mobilized. The chain of command is clear; the action items and tasks are communicated and performed like clockwork.

The other benefit of using an incident management system (IMS) is the ability to expand or contract the hierarchical structure as necessary. Emergencies are situational and sudden changes are inevitable. It is much better to prepare for the worst and expect the best.

Although the concept of IMS is relatively new to the petroleum and natural gas industry in Canada, some jurisdictions are promoting IMS or ICS (incident command system) to address the challenges of complicated emergency responses specific to oil- and gas-related incidents. Indeed, many companies have adopted modified versions of ICS, recognizing the dynamics of incident management – it doesn’t usually stop at the pipeline – and that the repercussions of poor emergency or crisis management can be severe, not to mention costly. The industry has also become more aware of the need for reliable communication systems, pre-planning and training, providing responders with clear directives and ensuring that each responder understands individual roles and responsibilities. Of course, there is always room for improvement. But when it hits the fan, no response can be successful without effective co-ordination.

Mike Burzek is the director of public protection and safety for the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission. He has more than 20 years of experience in emergency response and public safety, including nine years as a paramedic. He teaches courses, including fire suppression, emergency management and confined-space rescue. He lives in Dawson Creek, B.C., and can be reached at

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