Fire Fighting in Canada

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Managing the message

Fire Fighting in Canada recently brought together seven fire-service leaders from across the country for a virtual roundtable to discuss the state of the Canadian fire service.

February 8, 2011
By James Careless


Fire Fighting in Canada recently brought together seven fire-service leaders from across the country for a virtual roundtable to discuss the state of the Canadian fire service.

Tim Beckett is president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and fire chief with the City of Kitchener.

Dennis Berry is the fire marshal and director of fire and life safety for Yukon Government Community Services Protective Services Division.

Stephen Gamble is president of the Fire Chiefs Association of British Columbia, first vice-president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) and chief of the Port Coquitlam Fire Department.


Tim Jenkins is president of the P.E.I. Firefighters Association and a captain in the Charlottetown Fire Department.

Vince MacKenzie
is the chief of the Grand Falls-Windsor Fire Department in Newfoundland and president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services.

Rob Simonds is Chief of the Saint John Fire Department in New Brunswick and president of the CAFC.

Bernie Turpin is past president of the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association and administrative chief with Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency.

Finding qualified and strong leadership among the next generation is one of the many challenges the Canadian fire service is experiencing. Fire-service leaders say staying funded, equipped, staffed and ahead of the vicious circle of sacrificing something to achieve something else is the biggest challenge.
Photo by Laura King

FFIC: What is the biggest challenge for the Canadian fire service today?

As a service provider, the fire service consistently scores at the top of the list when citizens are polled on their satisfaction with the services available to them. But somehow, we haven’t convinced governments at all levels that we need adequate resources. How often are career departments targeted for budget cuts, manpower reductions or station closures? How often are volunteer department budgets cut or frozen, with the suggestion that the department must fundraise the rest?

Simonds: We need to ensure that we are clearly relevant to our constituents and our elected officials. There are a lot of issues competing for governmental and public attention. We need to make sure that our elected leaders pay as much attention to fire protection as they do other issues regarding public safety. As fire chiefs, it is our responsibility to do this, so that we are allocated the resources we need to protect the public.

Beckett: The biggest challenge that the fire service faces is the shrinking pool of available leadership. We have many great leaders in the service. However, as we continue to see an ever-increasing demand placed on the fire service, the word is that talent applying for positions is weak.

In the rural areas, recruitment and retention is a really big issue for volunteer departments. With an increasing number of people not working where they live, it is getting more difficult to field a volunteer fire department 24/7.

In British Columbia, our Fire Services Liaison Group recently released a report entitled Transforming the Fire/Rescue Service. In it, we identified a number of issues that need to be addressed. They include establishing a fire services advisory board, broadening the provincial fire commissioner’s mandate to cover all aspects of the British Columbia fire/rescue service, standardizing training and competency standards, and addressing support training and retention for volunteer departments. The short answer is that there is no one central challenge, rather a large number of them.

While I can’t speak for the nation as a whole, I feel I can speak with some authority on those areas that are rural by nature and are served by volunteer fire departments. In this environment the challenge we are facing is an aging demographic, termed the “grey tsunami” by researchers, combined with a new generation that has a different perspective of what “volunteering” means and lifestyles that no longer have the free time previous generations had to commit to volunteer activity. This change in civic perspective is taking place within a shrinking rural population.

To compound this shift in firefighter availability (recruitment and retention), we have changes in building practices and materials that have led to hotter, faster fires, combined with increased public expectations for specialized rescue and vehicle extrication. These changes have required a corresponding increase in training and time commitment from volunteers.

MacKenzie: For the Canadian fire service as a whole, the challenge is in the sheer number of issues to be managed, to maintain adequate services while keeping pace with changing and evolving technologies, legislation, occupational health and safety, building construction and due diligence, to name a few.

This equates to finding competent and visionary leadership in all facets and ranks of the Canadian fire service, both large and small, who are aware of and can manage these issues.

Fire fighting today is so much more complex, and staying funded, equipped, staffed and ahead of the relentless Catch-22 game of sacrificing something to achieve something else is the biggest challenge.  

While young recruits are lining up to get into urban fire departments, recruitment and retention is a growing issue for rural departments, meaning the fire service needs to change its recruiting strategies and goals.
Photo by Laura King


FFIC: Do you support the creation of the office of a national fire advisor?

MacKenzie: Absolutely, without a doubt. A senior public official that would advocate for Canadian public safety with special attention the fire service is crucial to give governments insight to the challenges just mentioned.

It is crucial for the government of Canada to understand and be advised on so many areas that affect public safety. The government of Canada should play a more active role in the fire service, similar to our neighbours down south, and a national fire advisor and agency is the first logical step.

Definitely, which is why the CAFC has been advocating for this position to be created. I absolutely believe that the federal government needs to have a principal advisor on fire protection issues. We are concerned that there is no one within the inner circle of government that can speak to and advocate for fire safety.

Yes, I do. Anything that leads to communication between government and the Canadian fire service is a bonus.

The creation of a national fire advisor should be high on the agenda for all fire-service personnel. Unlike police and emergency health care, there is no central repository for information that could show just how essential our service is to the citizens of the country. We need a national voice that can identify the information that will be useful to the fire industry and government, and that has the support of the fire service to collect the data; only then will our industry be able to make its case for the things that need to change.

Yes, I support the creation of the office of a national fire advisor. A national fire advisor is the only way for fire and life safety to become recognized as a national issue with a consistent, clear and focused message.

FFIC: What steps must the Canadian fire service take to better co-ordinate advocacy efforts on issues such as residential sprinklers, tax credits for volunteer firefighters and recruitment and retention challenges?

Greater synergy between the provincial and federal fire associations. Consistent messaging. Using every opportunity to promote these initiatives whenever the fire service is in front of the media, politicians, industry, all three levels of bureaucrats in government – especially planning, building, and safety divisions – and most importantly, the public.

Beckett: The Canadian fire service needs to focus common interests with one song sheet. We have several voices, which is good, but many times, we go to the politicians with conflicting messages.

  We need to speak with one voice. The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs is well positioned to fulfil this role, given that our directors represent every province and territory. We also cover career, volunteer and aboriginal fire departments, so the CAFC is the natural body to lobby on the fire service’s behalf.

MacKenzie: The Canadian fire service needs to create and build relationships with all stakeholders, both inside the service and outside the service, who have issues affecting the fire service and public protection. Creating a viable working environment and networking will be the most powerful tools to go forward. Co-ordinating the entire fire service together will generate better buy in from all who have issues to move forward.

Berry: Organization and advocacy of the Canadian fire service, similar to the Canadian police service, is the only way for fire and life safety issues to be brought to national, provincial and territorial and municipal attention.

FFIC: What issues/values/traditions are getting in the way of progress in the Canadian fire service?

Ours is an industry that is very fragmented by one of the traditions that many of our members feel is paramount to them – independence. What they don’t see is that police and emergency health have been able to use their national organizations to get the recognition they deserve.

Another problem we face is the number of firefighters who allow their pride in their department to hide the problems of the service in general. Every firefighter belongs to “the best” fire department. When we get a chance to speak with those who have influence over our destiny (voters, politicians and bureaucrats), we like to report that things are going well: we are well trained; we have the tools we need; we have good leadership; the world is turning the way it should. But this type of pride doesn’t allow people to understand that there are needs and shortcomings within the fire service.

I think the tradition of quietly doing our job without complaining is what hurts the fire service.

Beckett: The one tradition that needs to change is the lower value that we place on prevention. We put a lot of emphasis on suppression and operations, yet we fail to add the necessary resources to put strong pro-active fire prevention programs in place. We remain in our reactive state. We need to evaluate all our programs with the same rigour we do for operations.

Jenkins: We have got to do something to bring together departments in regions and provinces. In Prince Edward Island, for instance, we have some 70 different municipalities, 36 different fire departments and as many different rates for fire protection and training standards with no common correlation among them all. This just doesn’t make sense, and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to efficient mutual aid.

MacKenzie: The fire service needs to look outside of its own box and promote and market itself. All the traditional solutions have been worked and reworked. Innovation embracing a greater focus on leadership and core values must be built upon and improved. There are areas of tradition that we can build on, as the public already admires us, but fire departments have to show good value to maintain the status quo these days. The tradition of us constantly accepting doing more and more with less, and fewer resources to do it, has to stop. The federal government has a larger role to play, but the tradition of fire being solely a provincial and municipal responsibility has to be reworked.

Believe it or not, there is a general lack of understanding among elected officials and the public about what the Canadian fire service does. People know we put out fires, but they don’t know all the services we perform for our communities. We need to bridge this information gap.

FFIC: What will it take to make the three levels of government treat the fire service the same as other emergency agencies and organizations?

Beckett: I think the issue is about competing for government dollars at the same level as police and EMS. I believe that we are treated fairly. However in Ontario, government at the regional level versus the local municipal level is much different. With police and EMS operating at the regional level, they compete for a different tax dollar – arguably, there is only one taxpayer to get this money from – than fire does.

Berry: Organization and advocacy of the Canadian fire service, similar to the Canadian police service, is the only way for fire and life safety issues to be brought to national, provincial, territorial and municipal attention.

Gamble: The government needs to fully understand what we do, the value of our service, and what the implications would be if there wasn’t a fire service in Canada – especially the cost if there weren’t people willing to do this work.

Simonds: Again, it comes back to having a co-ordinated strategy and one voice for advocating on behalf of the Canadian fire service. We need to speak with one clear, focused voice, and we need to make sure that voice is heard at the highest levels of government, which is why having a national fire advisor would help.

MacKenzie: There needs to be one solid voice coming from the provincial and territorial associations, in co-ordination with our national board, with a national and comprehensive strategy to effect real, positive change. The federal government has to have clear policy on what levels and basic rights of fire and life safety protection should be permitted to every Canadian citizen, regardless of the size of their municipality, then help fund it to achieve it for all Canadians.

Turpin: All of the above, and strong leadership. We follow a hierarchy in our department structures to ensure we are all working toward the same goal and we are moving in the same direction. Until we get our act together on a national scale, we will continue to move in circles and not find the way to move ahead.

James Careless is an Ottawa-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Fire Fighting in Canada.

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