It was one of the most daunting challenges any fire service has ever faced in Canada. And 10 years later it's not only working, but Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency has probably become the most unique and diverse fire department in the country.
The formal amalgamation of Halifax County occurred in 1996. It resulted in one municipality of more than 350,000 people spread out over an area larger than the entire province of Prince Edward Island.
It was actually two years earlier, in 1994, that the government of the late Premier John Savage announced the entire county would be amalgamated. For the fire service much more was involved than bringing together the urban Halifax and Dartmouth departments.
Not only were suburbs like Bedford, Sackville and Cole Harbour being absorbed, but also scores of small communities and villages across the county. Some were fishing communities, others involved in farming and lumber. A few were hours away from downtown Halifax and Dartmouth, and many had their own fire departments with dedicated volunteers and their own individual long and proud histories. In fact, a total of 38 fire departments would become part of the new organization.
Two departments, Halifax and Dartmouth, were career only. Others were combination career and volunteer. Many were completely volunteer. In 1995, there were 515 career fire fighters and 1,200 volunteers in Halifax County.
Gary Greene was in the hot seat. He had joined the Dartmouth Fire Department in 1966 and had been chief since 1987. In 1995 he left the helm of the Dartmouth department to join the administrative team organizing the new community. He had already been told that he would be the first Commissioner (now known as Chief Director) of the new fire service.
Building a fire department
"I remember the first day in my office," he said recently. "I had no telephone. I had no staff. No secretary. I asked Ken Meech (then chief executive officer of Halifax County) what I was supposed to do. He just looked at me and said: ‘Build a fire department'."
Greene knew he was breaking completely new ground in fire administration. No one else had ever done anything quite like this and so there was no one with this kind of experience to seek out for advice.
"I already knew Dartmouth, so I went to every station in Halifax and spoke to the people. I sat with them in their kitchens and explained what we were trying to do and sought their input. I told senior officers I hadn't hired anybody yet, it was a level playing field, and encouraged them to consider applying for positions."
Greene started visiting the suburban departments, then those in the rural areas. "The vision really began to take shape with the meetings of the chiefs of these departments. That gave us a big picture of what had to be done. An infrastructure started to form."
As early as two years prior to amalgamation the city and suburb chiefs began informal meetings every few weeks to brainstorm what needed to be done. Each meeting was held in a different community and the host chief was the chair.
Very soon after amalgamation, meetings began with volunteer chiefs and a Fire Advisory Committee was formed. That eventually became what is now the Rural Management Committee which allows rural departments to have a say in how the rural service is managed.
"I did envision a single department, but with a different organizational structure. My thinking was operating Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford, Sackville, Cole Harbour, and Eastern Passage as one unit, the rurals as another. But in hindsight, having a single structure is working."
Greene had help. Mike Eddy and Bill Mosher became the department's two new deputy commissioners. Eddy was soon chief director and served in that capacity until his retirement as this article was going to press. Mosher has been named Acting Chief Director.
"There was a terrible inequity," Eddy recalls. "Some departments had everything. Some had almost nothing. There were volunteer departments whose members spent more on jackets than other departments had to spend on equipment."
The culture had to be changed. There had been poor relations between fire fighters in Halifax and Dartmouth for years. Suddenly Halifax members found themselves working out of Dartmouth stations and vice versa. Chiefs were reassigned to opposite sides of the harbour.
"We had to stop talking about how we did it in Halifax, or how we did it in Dartmouth. We found the best programs in each department and used them to set a standard. The bar had to be raised. In 1996 I did a brainstorming session with all my operations people. We came up with a list of 120 things that had to be done. In 1998, when Gary retired and I took over as chief director, there were six left."
Eddy came up with a strategic plan for the department. "It's the only strategic plan I've ever seen that fits on one 81/2 X 11 sheet of paper. This is what has built this organization."
In fact, 10 years later, that document continues to be the guiding light of Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency. It includes the department's Mission Statement, Vision Statement, and Values. There are seven Guiding Principles and four Strategic Directions. Everything the department does, every decision it makes, is somehow linked to this document.
Bill Mosher began his career with the Halifax fire department in 1978 riding the back of Engine 1 that ran out of West Street, one of the busiest trucks in the city at that time. "I applied first to the Dartmouth Fire Department," he says. "But I still haven't heard back from them."
He was deputy chief in Halifax when amalgamation came down, and he was appointed as a deputy director (Support Services) of the new department. He was later put in charge of rural operations. Mosher soon learned the rural volunteers were completely dedicated to their communities and has frequently said that many are some of finest people he has ever met.
But you need more than dedication and courage to fight a fire. You need the tools.
"We had to get them the equipment they needed to do the job so they can go home safely when the call is over. I remember our people going into one rural station and when they left there was only one coat and one helmet left on the hook. Everything else was condemned."
While some rural departments were in good shape, at others it became clear that volunteers were placing themselves at grave risk every time they fought a fire. Some gear dated from the 1960s. Some trucks were unsafe. Tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, some surplus and some earmarked for city stations, was rushed to the worst off rural areas. Other rural departments that had larger communities and a healthy tax rate also contributed gear and equipment to other stations that had little or no budgets to work with.
In 2003 a new tax rate came in and the entire budget for the department was administered at headquarters where the needs of stations were prioritized. "One department, for instance, had a rapidly growing community and a huge budget. They could have anything they wanted. Now they would have to tread water for a while so other departments could catch up."
The department has 144 front line apparatus and most of these are now new vehicles. To maintain the traditional pride of community, the old departments are still intact and the community name is on the side of their new trucks, as well as the Halifax Regional logo.
Most still have their station chiefs.
"It's those chiefs that are the key," says Mosher. The popularity contests are gone.
Qualifications are high for any volunteer running for the position of chief. The membership still has a say, but the appointment is made through a selection process by the department.
"We have yet to go against the membership," says Mosher. "The members are promoting better people. It's not an old boys club anymore."
The rural areas are divided into zones, each with a career district chief. The volunteer chiefs and deputies in each zone form a Board of Chiefs or BOC which works with the district chief in planning operations and training in their area. Each zone is getting its own tactical unit which operates as an air supply, command and rehab vehicle.
"I do have a vision for the rural area," says Mosher. "I think our role is to co-ordinate. Get them the resources they need, not necessarily what they want. Support them. Manage their expectations. Listen to them. Don't make decisions behind their backs."
Close to the inner city are Bedford, Sackville, Cole Harbour, and Eastern Passage, which existed as separate communities with their own combination paid/volunteer fire departments prior to amalgamation. They still have 24/7 coverage by career members, and also have strong volunteer components.
Today there are about 460 career and 800 volunteer fire fighters in Halifax Regional Municipality. The volunteers primarily serve their own areas and zones, but are sometimes called to incidents elsewhere in the city. In fact, there has not been a major fire in Halifax in years in which volunteer companies have not been involved.
Amalgamation 10 years later
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