Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum: Acceptable service: Are we there yet?

It’s a new year, a new beginning and a good time to be frank. So let’s begin with a couple of questions: Why do people believe that Canadian fire services consistently provide extraordinary service? Why do they assume the fire services habitually go above and beyond the call of duty to exceed expectations?

February 25, 2009
By David Hodgins

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It’s a new year, a new beginning and a good time to be frank. So let’s begin with a couple of questions: Why do people believe that Canadian fire services consistently provide extraordinary service? Why do they assume the fire services habitually go above and beyond the call of duty to exceed expectations?

Is it because all fire departments are really good at what they do? Or has it come time for us to inform taxpayers about what they should expect of us and the actual costs associated with department services? Should people be given details about what could be delivered if additional money were invested in prevention, mitigation or response services? And what about identifying the service outcomes if the budgets were reduced?

The media and the public seem to unconditionally accept the fact that their local firefighters will respond to emergencies and do their very best under the most challenging circumstances. They tend to avoid making unkind comments about us in public because they do not know the ins and outs of our business.

Now, here is a soul-searching question: Have we been spoiled by the media and the public? Unlike the police, fire services are not subjected to critical media scrutiny. Perhaps it is not such a bad thing that the police are routinely interrogated as it challenges them to find ways to improve their response capabilities in order to maintain community confidence.

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But what about the fire services? Is it time we got serious about openly reviewing and improving our firefighting capabilities and effectiveness? I want to make one thing clear: This is not about the need for more, bigger or better resources. The fact that there is lots of room for service improvements is, I realize, a challenging topic to write about. After all, we are not accustomed to airing our dirty laundry in public. However, I believe we need to ask ourselves some tough questions. To begin with, are we really that good? Could we do better?

Recently I had lunch with two retired senior fire officers. Both are experienced, knowledgeable and held in high esteem within the fire services. Since their retirement they have spent considerable time reviewing major fire events across Canada in order to understand and recommend ways for firefighters to provide better customer service while staying safe.

As we discussed some recent high-profile fire events and what could have been done differently, we focused on the need for all of us to be candid about ways to improve firefighting strategies and tactics. Now, I know some of you are thinking we’re just arm-chair quarterbacks. But others, I hope, are thinking it’s about time we had a serious discussion about the quality of customer service and our response capabilities.

If you were to ask me to look for the central theme of our conversation, it would be the need for education and training that are directly related to the incident command system. There is still far too much freelancing and too many free-ranging behaviours on the fire ground.

I know that scores of fire officers have taken ICS courses and they know how to organize a systematic and effective fire attack. However, the challenge is the need for the officers to ensure all on-scene personnel adhere to the rules of engagement as spelled out within the ICS. Basically, it’s an issue of all responders needing to understand the ICS and ensuring they follow its prescribed principles.

We are talking about the ICS but remember, this is not our first exposure to a structured-systems approach for the fire ground. Remember the fire ground command system developed and put forward by the fire services guru Al Brunacini back in the early ’80s? Chief Brunacini understood the need for command and order to ensure firefighter safety and effective extinguishment. At the end of the day, it comes down to more, better and the right training for firefighters. Only with this training will they be able to complete all expected fire ground tasks and use the apparatus and equipment competently and safely.

Amid the need to analyze and improve our performance, we face the urgency of the impending grey wave of retirement. The retirement of experienced individuals will negatively impact the delivery of customer-focused fire and emergency services.

And that begs the question: What should we be doing to ensure those who will be taking their place have the necessary skills?


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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