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Leadership Forum: Beyond the lights and sirens – part 2

I had the opportunity recently to vacation in the magnificent country of Singapore.  Singapore is a modern and extremely well-governed country with a population of approximately 4.5 million people.

September 18, 2008 
By E. David Hodgins

I had the opportunity recently to vacation in the magnificent country of Singapore.  Singapore is a modern and extremely well-governed country with a population of approximately 4.5 million people. It’s amazingly clean with incredibly well-maintained roads, public parks and outdoor shopping spaces. The contemporary design of the buildings located in its core area is a site to behold. In my opinion, the taxi service available in Singapore rates a nine out of 10. The taxis are well maintained, clean, readily available and easy on the wallet. By comparison, I would rate taxi service in other parts of the world, including Canada, at a two or less. And if this travel review of Singapore doesn’t excite you, then let’s move to its world-class fire prevention program. 

Singapore is served by a totally integrated fire/rescue, emergency medical and emergency management department. Its system is a highly developed model worth imitating. What is remarkable about Singapore’s integrated service is the apparent scarcity of emergency events. We were in Singapore for seven days and didn’t see a police, fire or EMS vehicle responding to any emergency event.

I had a similar experience while vacationing in Ireland in 2006. Similar to Singapore, Ireland is an island with a population of more than 4 million people.  During our three-week visit to the Emerald Isle, which included a couple of days in the incredibly busy city of Dublin, I recall hearing the sound of a siren a total of six times. One wonders why there appears to be so few emergency events in these two countries. Like Canada and the U.S., both Singapore and Ireland are experiencing significant growth in population and infrastructure. Industrial, business and residential development is everywhere. These countries are highly aggressive about trade and commerce. And along with robust and growing economies and local communities are the usual life safety and property protection fire risks similar to what is found in Canada and the U.S. However, the similarity stops when one compares their – and our – number of emergency events.

Sitting in my office in the heart of downtown Edmonton, the sound of sirens is heard repeatedly. I have found the same during my numerous visits to other North American cities. This is not meant to be a comprehensive academic analysis of statistical data; however, a quick search on the Internet reveals Singapore responds to approximately 5,000 fire events annually. That includes response services provided for Singapore’s active Changi Airport as well as its seaport, which is the busiest in the world.


According to a 2006 report published by the Centre of Fire Statistics, International Association of Fire and Rescue Services, the average number of fire calls per 1,000 inhabitants in Singapore in 2004 was 2.3. The average number of fire calls per 1,000 inhabitants in the U.S. for the same year was 77.  In 2004, the average number of fire deaths per 100,000 for Singapore was 0.2 and for the U.S. per 100,000 it was 1.3. (The entire report is available at 

Canada was not involved with the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services applied research project; however, according to information available through the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners website, the statistics presented for 2002 show that Canada experiences 60,000 fire events annually based on a 10 year average. The average number of fire deaths per 100,000 is 1.25. And how do cities compare? Toronto – with a population of approximately 2.48 million – had its fire department respond to 9,500 events in 2007. The Toronto Fire Services published 2007 annual report also lists the total number of responses at 142,515, of which there were 75,177 medical assist responses and 27,978 responses under the fire alarm ringing category.  Montreal’s fire department, serving a metropolitan area population of roughly 3.7 million, experiences approximately 50,000 total emergency events annually with approximately 10,000 being fire events. The Hong Kong fire department, which is often applauded for its successful fire prevention program, serves a population of 7 million and responds to approximately 32,000 fire calls annually.

What are others doing to reduce the sounds of sirens? What can we learn from them? And how do we address fire related risks? Key considerations involve the implementation of enhanced education programs, more prescriptive codes and standards, modern engineering practices and increased inspection and enforcement activities. As well, we need to get serious about the challenges related to unfortunate social and economic conditions and negative behaviours.  

Then there is the No. 1 challenge, and that is to develop the can-do attitude. We can prevent fires. And we can do it by demonstrating leadership through a proactive rather than a reactive stance.

David Hodgins is 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. E-mail:

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