Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum: June 2010

Fire, rescue and emergency management (EM) services should be separate and stand-alone organizations. At least, that’s what I once thought – and I defended that view with great vigour.

June 3, 2010
By E. David Hodgins

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Fire, rescue and emergency management (EM) services should be separate and stand-alone organizations. At least, that’s what I once thought – and I defended that view with great vigour. Each is a unique service with its own unique mandate with distinct traditions and cultures. And EM folks also don’t typically wear uniforms. However, as I reflect on the need to apply what I preach about effective leadership and the ongoing quest to find better ways to achieve an organization’s goal and objectives, I have rethought this issue. I have come to realize there is a tremendous opportunity in linking these services.

Today I am a champion and enthusiastic promoter of systems that bring together fire, rescue and EM into a single structure. As I talk with colleagues about its benefits, I am challenged with questions such as why just fire, rescue and EM and what about the police and paramedics? My response, based on a career in the emergency services, is that fire and rescue are front and centre when a major emergency occurs. Television clips of a disaster, such as a flood or a tornado, always zero in on action shots of firefighters and search-and-rescue technicians. Why? Because they are the most actively engaged services in responding to natural disasters so it makes good sense for them to operate within one structure before, during and after a disaster. This is true for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) emergency events as well. I realize that EM professionals, police officers, paramedics and public works people play an integral role in bringing order out of chaos but my focus is on partnering the two centre stage emergency players.

Fire and rescue services often complain that they take a back seat to police in securing needed resources. Whether that is a reality or just a perception is not relevant at this point. Senior decision makers agree that an amalgamated structure would definitely add value to these organizations. Fire and rescue services would gain ground by supporting an amalgamated structure. 

For instance, aggressive fire extinguishment occupies approximately five per cent of a fire department’s time. Many departments are responding to medical and motor vehicle collision emergencies, which adds considerably to their response numbers. However, there is an opportunity to take the lead and be the go-to for EM as well. When it comes to EM and the proverbial FM radio station WIIFM – What’s in it for me? – I would suggest a joined-up fire and rescue would give EM direct access to much-needed resources. Having a seat at the table becomes a win-win for everyone.

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The death and devastation that resulted from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, highlighted the need for comprehensive and robust EM services. Every level of government embraced a renewed interest in EM and the need to ensure its organizations were able to respond to major events in a connected, co-ordinated, co-operative and collaborative approach. This has let fire departments get involved in supporting their government’s community safety priority. I am not talking about a hostile takeover. This is about creating synergies to provide citizens with effective and efficient education, planning, preparedness, response and recovery services.

Think about the opportunities that exist in public education. Most fire systems have effective, albeit often marginalized, fire safety and injury prevention programs. They do not necessarily require additional resources to grow these programs to include preparedness for major emergency events. But the EM 72-hour preparedness message is not as effective as it should be. It’s estimated that only 13 per cent of the population is prepared to be self-sufficient immediately following a major event. That needs to improve.

The expanded use of the incident command system (ICS) creates another opportunity for fire and rescue to support and partner with EM and the other emergency response agencies. ICS is routinely used for fire incidents so fire department officers are very good at applying the ICS principles. This could be shared with others in creating more effective and efficient mitigation activities. And it makes good sense to do this through a joined-up system.

I was very proud to be part of a closely aligned fire and rescue response team. And I wore the uniform with great pride. As I stepped away from my role of fire chief and then fire commissioner, I wondered how I would adjust to life in a suit and tie. Actually, it has worked out very well. Being part of an integrated fire, rescue and EM structure has its benefits, including significantly enhanced support from very senior levels of government. This translates into the ability to influence the overall system in order to benefit the services, and more importantly the people, we seek to serve.

It’s all about leaders making the right decisions for the right reasons. As Pierre Elliot Trudeau put it: “Reason over passion.”


David Hodgins in the managing director, Alberta Emergency Management Agency. He is a former assistant deputy minister and fire commissioner for British Columbia. A 30-year veteran of the fire service, he is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s public administration program and a certified emergency and disaster manager. Contact him at David.Hodgins@gov.ab.ca


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