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Editor’s pick 2016: Leading Edge

Does your fire service utilize NFPA 1001 as your minimum training standard for your firefighters? Does every firefighter have that level – even if you are one of the thousands of small volunteer fire services in Canada?

November 22, 2016
By Don Jolley


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While many larger departments will hopefully answer yes to the questions, the fact that many smaller volunteer departments won’t was identified as a very serious operational issue in British Columbia. From the recognition of this problem arose a local solution that is gaining universal attention.

In September 2009 the fire service liaison group, in its Transforming the Fire/Rescue Service document, identified that standardized competencies and training standards were an immediate priority. This observation was reinforced by the results documented by the province’s own Fire Service Training Access Review completed the same year. In 2013 the BC Institute of Technology SITE Centre for Applied Research highlighted the serious problem with firefighter training compliance by stating in its BC Fire Training Needs Assessment document that “the NFPA 1001 … appears to be unattainable and unrealistic for many of the departments in B.C.” The NFPA 1001 standard had been the legislated training standard for B.C.’s firefighters since 2002 and yet, during all those years, there were an alarming number of fire departments, mostly in smaller and mid-size communities, that were simply unable or unwilling to comply for myriad reasons.

In late summer of 2013 the Fire Chiefs’ Association of BC decided to try to do something about this systemic and potentially life-threatening situation. Association president Tim Pley and I visited with Lori Wanamaker, the assistant deputy minister of public safety, to propose an idea to find a solution to the problem. During that meeting a concept was hatched to generate a new training standard for firefighters that would be accessible, affordable and attainable (the 3-As); Wanamaker coined it “The Playbook.”

At that point, a small steering committee formed of representatives from the chiefs association. The Office of the Fire Commissioner of BC, and the BC Fire Training Officers Association began an exhaustive analysis of literature and research to formulate the beginnings of a new standard. Stakeholders including training agencies, local government management and elected officials, firefighters and  chiefs were consulted and surveyed. Repeatedly, we heard that the NFPA standard didn’t work. When we asked why, we were surprised by the consistent answers: “Costs way too much.” “Can’t get into scheduled courses.” “Too hard to get an instructor.” “Can’t afford to send the members away to the training.” “Takes up too much of our firefighters’ personal time.” “Volunteers don’t need all that extra stuff.”

Do these musings sound familiar? Turns out that the British Columbia Institute of Technology found that more than 83 per cent of departments reported significant barriers to achieving the NFPA standards, led by inaccessibility to courses and instructors, cost, and time-commitment challenges for firefighters. It was clear that the 3-As approach described by the assistant deputy minister made sense, but the challenge was to develop a program to meet those goals.

To organize a whole new standard, we needed to look holistically at the issue in a very broad and comprehensive way. We decided to focus on competencies rather than certification – a decision that ultimately focussed the entire Playbook project in a new direction. To begin to address the 3-As and focus on competencies, the steering committee ultimately looked internally. The training officers association, under then-president Dean Colthorp, had, since 2007, been guiding the delivery of a simplified firefighter program designed for very small communities with volunteer firefighters, and First Nations fire services. It was called the basic firefighter program and it provided a simple, yet not-so-obvious solution to one of our major dilemmas. The decision was made to utilize the basic firefighter program as the foundation, or absolute minimum training competency standard that every firefighter in the province would need to achieve. The basic firefighter program was rebranded and is now known as the exterior firefighter level; it trains firefighters to attack a fire solely from the outside of a building. Safer, easier, less costly to train, and more realistic as a service level in rural/remote communities, the exterior firefighter level is the first level of The Playbook.

Accompanying the exterior firefighter level is a train-the-trainer program that facilitates in-house delivery from a complete package of educational and evaluation tools, provided at no expense, thanks to provincial grant funding.

In the next issue, I will discuss the standard – what makes the Structure Firefighters Competency and Training Playbook what it is.


Don Jolley is the fire chief for the City of Pitt Meadows, and the first vice-president of the Fire Chiefs’ Association of British Columbia. Contact him at djolley@pittmeadows.bc.ca


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