Public safety is paramount in our business. Indeed, public safety is not just for the public, it also includes safety for those who provide emergency services to the public. It has been said that there is no cost or effort too great to being safe on the job; provincial ministries of labour, councils, chief officers and union leaders would agree, I think.
It is within this concept of public safety that we face the reality that the safest fires (if there can be safe fires) are the ones that either don’t start or that are very small when the big red trucks roll up to the scene. And public education about preventing fires in the first place is the most effective means of maintaining public fire safety, all the while providing a safe working environment for firefighters. In other words, public fire-safety education is our first and best line of defence for community and firefighter safety.
The goal of every fire service across Canada should be the provision of top-notch public fire-safety education to everyone in our incredibly diverse communities. Anecdotally, our nation’s fire services have been experiencing fewer fires and consequently fewer fire deaths and injuries over the past 20 years. However, it is difficult to confirm this statistically as we have no national program for the gathering and analysis of fire statistics (see Len Garris’s commentary, The case for national numbers, in the June issue of Fire Fighting in Canada). It is due to the proactive nature of public education, revisions to fire and building codes and enhanced enforcement methods that our collective actions have been positive for the safety of the public and firefighters.
Public education works. Teaching the benefits of early detection (smoke alarms save lives) and the outright prevention of fires in the first place means fewer and smaller fires. This results in increased safety, not only for the public but also for firefighters.
However, we do have more work to do across Canada to prevent fires in the interest of public safety and to make the job safer for our firefighters. Active and diverse engagement in our communities – big and small – is the key to enhancing firefighter safety. We need to reach into our rather diverse communities to provide comprehensive public fire-safety education. We need to be more engaging of those who speak neither of our official languages and who have not grown up with Sparky and Learn Not To Burn. We all live in incredibly culturally diverse communities across Canada. How can we provide even the most basic public fire-safety education to families within this growing diversity? I don’t speak Urdu, Punjabi or Spanish. I am not intimately familiar with the unique cultural/religious aspects of the wide spectrum of new Canadians who have chosen to live and work in my small community. And, even more compelling is the fact that most of our firefighters don’t have these skills and knowledge either. So how can we effectively become more engaged in public fire safety in our diverse communities?
We need to review the composition of our fire services. To maintain our advantage against the tragedy of fire, Canadian fire services needs to become more diverse themselves. We need to hire more firefighters who – yes, here we go – reflect the diversity of our communities. Anyone who can pass the physical and aptitude tests can put the blue stuff on the red stuff. However, we need firefighters who are familiar with the local gurdwara, yeshiva and mosque to become engaged with those who attend them. We need firefighters who can speak the languages and who are familiar with the unique and intimate cultural aspects of our communities to save lives and ultimately make the job safer for firefighters.
A significant challenge to creating a more diverse fire service is changing the stereotypical image of a firefighter and enabling those from our visibly diverse communities to seek opportunities to join the local volunteer or full-time fire service. Every community is in tune with its needs and circumstance regarding fire-service infrastructure. We could – and should – employ similar efforts to encouraging eligible residents to apply for membership on the local fire department to enhance its diversity.
Bringing on firefighters who reflect the diversity of our communities is not just an aesthetically pleasing thing to do, as columnist Robyn Urback argued in the National Post on July 15, 2013, after Toronto Fire Services announced its goal of a 10 per cent increase in women and minorities. Increased diversity in the Canadian fire service will save the lives of the public and firefighters.
Douglas Tennant is the fire chief in Deep River, Ont. He joined the fire services as a volunteer in 1978 and has served several communities as a fire prevention officer, chief officer and as a manager with the Office of the Fire Marshal in Thunder Bay, Ont. Tennant was the treasurer and a vice president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs for eight years. Contact him at
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