Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum: Fire service leadership beyond lights and sirens

Almost every day, fire claims the life of an individual somewhere in Canada. I am sure you will agree that this is unacceptable and that even one fire fatality is one too many.

September 16, 2008
By E. David Hodgins

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Almost every day, fire claims the life of an individual somewhere in Canada. I am sure you will agree that this is unacceptable and that even one fire fatality is one too many.

What are we doing to solve this crisis? It’s time for a serious discussion about fire prevention. We all know that fire prevention and public education programs are not as sexy and do not provide the adrenaline rush generated by emergency lights and sirens. However, it is no longer acceptable to overlook opportunities to reduce fire fatalities through prevention programs while allocating more than 97 per cent of a fire department’s budget to reactive, emergency-related resources.

Here is a story that was published in May in a major Canadian newspaper. The names have been changed to obscure the fire department’s identity. A fire department’s reputation should be gauged by how well it prevents fires. A good prevention program reminds residents and commercial owners alike of the need to make sure that smoke detectors are in working order and that safety and fire hazards have been checked. The importance of fire prevention cannot be overestimated.

John Doe, a city fire-prevention inspector, told the press, “In 2007, there were nine deaths due to fires, and in eight of those cases there were no working smoke detectors. But the city’s auditor general (AG), Jane Doe, reported this week that when it comes to prevention, the city is not doing a good job. The AG’s finding should alarm city residents. On a more positive note, the fire department has been compiling data on the number of fires that have broken out, their causes, the number of deaths or injuries and amount of material damage. Unfortunately, the AG reported, the bank is rarely used. If this analysis were combined with the inventory of buildings, the fire department could direct its prevention efforts to buildings with the highest risks.”

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It’s time to get ahead of fire tragedies. We need to get serious about eliminating the sound of sirens. Maybe it’s time to hand off the responsibility for the delivery of fire safety public education programs to the formal educational institutes. I have been involved in fire and emergency management services for 31 years and have watched fire departments secure new and improved apparatus with all the bells and whistles while almost ignoring prevention program needs. Some fire department managers point fingers and suggest others should do more to create rules to better control fires yet they ignore opportunities to be proactive in their own backyards. 

At one time, and for some existing services, being assigned to the department’s fire-prevention program was viewed as a punishment. Management, with the support of some firefighter associations, used fire prevention as a landing place for individuals who could no longer perform response duties. Regardless of what the chiefs were saying about fire prevention, the real message was that fire prevention was not important, that any resource was better than none. It did not matter that the assigned individual had no interest in fire prevention nor in any training to perform successfully in this critical area. Given municipalities’ financial challenges, when fire department managers are directed by elected officials to cut their budgets, what area is first to be sacrificed? Fire prevention services are often reduced under the masquerade of realigning them to the fire suppression staff. That might work if the tools to perform the task were provided along with the required performance audits to ensure desired results are being achieved.

On a positive note, the president of the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association, Chief Brian McEvoy, and Edmonton Chief Randy Wolsey recently demonstrated what can be done to improve life safety and property protection. Working with senior government officials, they focused considerable efforts on program enhancements aimed at reducing fires in Alberta. Chief McEvoy and Chief Wolsey served on an Alberta working group looking at high intensity residential fires, established by the Alberta Emergency Management Agency under the direction of Municipal Affairs Minister Ray Danyluk.

The work group was established following several major residential fires in Edmonton and comprised representatives from numerous stakeholder groups. Many of the report’s recommendation spoke to public education and fire safety education as well as needed code changes.

Modern building and fire codes and the use of fire-resistant building materials are important when it comes to controlling fire once started. However, the most effective way to protect lives and property is to ensure fires don’t start in the first place. It’s time to focus your leadership priorities on fire prevention initiatives. Do it for your firefighters, their families and the public we serve.



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: David.Hodgins@gov.ab.ca


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