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Moving forward

Saint John Fire Chief Rob Simonds is the new president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. FFIC editor Laura King sat down with Simonds in Saint John, N.B., in September following the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs conference to discuss next steps for the CAFC.

November 1, 2010
By Laura King

Saint John Fire Chief Rob Simonds is the new president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. FFIC editor Laura King sat down with Simonds in Saint John, N.B., in September following the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs conference to discuss next steps for the CAFC.

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CAFC president Rob Simonds addresses delegates at the
closing banquet of the annual conference in Saint John in September. Simonds spoke passionately about the CAFC’s obligation to the members of the Canadian fire service and the need to build the association through increased memberships from the volunteer sector.

 

Q: Let’s talk about priorities. The CAFC has just launched the website Givefirefighterscredit.com – what is the plan for lobbying Ottawa to win a tax credit for volunteer firefighters?

A. I think it’s important that our members know there’s a strong effort being made to represent their interest; sometimes when individual fire chiefs across the country think of the CAFC they may not understand the importance or the relevance to them. When you have fire chiefs from Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Calgary knocking on the doors of the members of Parliament, for the specific purpose of securing tax relief for our volunteers, that’s evidence of the commitment that exists to respond to the needs of the entire fire service in Canada, not just those in urban areas.

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I think the CAFC has a broad appeal – we don’t just address the issues of those large urban departments but also the towns and villages, and it’s important for them to know – the other fire chiefs across the country who are currently not members of our association – that we are very committed to achieving that goal. We recognize their challenges with respect to recruitment and retention and when we surveyed our members, in particular our volunteer chiefs, we were advised that securing tax relief would enable them to negate some of the recruitment and retention issues they currently have, so I think that’s a very important consideration.

The other is that we recognize that in order to be effective in advancing the interests  of the Canadian fire service we need to have effective relations with government. And we feel we have a responsibility to government – in particular for federal issues – to be a friend to government and be able to advise and clarify for what the issues of interest are to the Canadian fire service. So, we definitely have an advocacy role and that advocacy role includes articulating what those concerns are.

In fairness to government, there are so many competing demands so when you look at the issues such as health care, education, an aging population, infrastructure, deficits and so forth, as stewards of public safety we have a responsibility to ensure that public safety and security considerations are on the radar of the federal government. So, in that regard we need to ensure – not just the CAFC but collectively all fire chiefs across the country – that the fire service continues to have relevance within our municipal, provincial and federal governments.

In terms of priorities, obviously we need to build on the foundations that have been placed by some of our predecessors and we need to start achieving some of these goals. We have become much more focused in our approach, and whether it’s working with lobby groups such as Summa who can explain to us the nuances of working with government so we have an understanding of what government needs in order to justify their support of some of our issues – that’s going to be very important.

We know that in talking to various members of Parliament that, in some cases, they thought the legislation had already been passed in support of tax relief for volunteers, and in other cases we have broad party support, so with those types of dynamics we recognize that we need to become re-engaged and re-focused on that consideration.

Q. There’s been lots of talk this week about the CAFC and advocacy. The CAFC does its government relations week in Ottawa once a year – how might that change so that the CAFC has a more effective voice? What are the next steps?

A. What we’re trying to do – and another theme we’ve heard this week whether listening to Gen. Rick Hillier or [Atlanta Fire] Chief Kelvin Cochrane – was the importance of relationship building. Certainly it’s important for government to know who we are as individuals and what our collective interests are – and [Calgary] Chief [Bruce] Burrell did an excellent job of initiating the contact with those federal departments –  it will be our objective to have more sustained contact with government so that we are not simply the once-a-year visitors. We will continue to have dialogue with Ottawa, understand what they need, because from a government’s perspective quite often it’s quantitative – they need to understand the numbers, they need to be able to understand what they’re going to achieve, and how they’re going to measure it, and we have a responsibility to articulate that to government, it can’t be simply anecdotal – that we think that something will be beneficial – hence our efforts to conduct a national survey.
Having more of a sustained presence in Ottawa and meeting regularly with those key departments will be a key consideration.

The inter-relatedness among federal departments is very significant, so rather than simply focusing our efforts with Public Safety Canada, some of our interests also lie with Industry Canada; some of them lie with the finance department and some with Health Canada, and so by that inter-dependency that exists within the federal bureaucracy there will be a common thread and they will collectively understand what our interests are and how we can support the federal government, because whether it’s our role, for example, in the Consumer Products Act, and in terms of our feedback as a valued stakeholder, it’s important for government so they understand the consequences if we’re not being vigilant in terms of monitoring the products that are brought into this country.

So, sometimes there is a misunderstanding in that perhaps the politicians and bureaucrats have a very narrow view of what our contribution can be in support of the federal government when in fact it’s much broader than that. It is simply not just talking about response considerations or public education considerations because, as your readership would know, we are much more than suppression and hazmat and EMS; we provide some very value-added services to our communities and I think that on a go-forward basis we need to do a better job of communicating that to the federal government so that they understand just how valuable our contribution is to the safety and security of Canadians.

Q. You mentioned a national survey. Can you elaborate?

A. When we met with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty with respect to our need to secure tax relief for our volunteer firefighters, he asked a number of questions and he was looking for some quantitative analysis in terms of, for example, what percentage of the Canadian fire service receives honourariums, how much are those honourariums, how many volunteer firefighters use their own vehicles to respond, the average budget for departments and how do we really know that if we introduced tax relief for volunteers it is going to address the issues with respect to recruitment and retention.

We had a responsibility as a result of having those questions put to us, so, in response, we conducted a national survey to glean that information and we recognize that in our role as advocates we need to be able to justify to government why we are seeking changes or support for a particular initiative.

Q. The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs has been working hard on the issue of residential sprinklers and Niagara Falls Deputy Chief Jim Jessop spoke passionately about that this week. Where does the CAFC stand on the issues of sprinklers and code enforcement and how is it going attempt to move those issues forward?

A. We have a committee that is focused on looking at code reviews. We are trying to work with the National Research Council in terms of the new building codes for this country and that’s one of our challenges – trying to ensure that as the codes are moving into their next generation they are taking into consideration the safety of firefighters and not simply the occupants of the home.

We are attempting to communicate our interests, whether it’s advancing residential sprinklers or looking at some of the lightweight construction techniques that are being used today, so the NRC and those who develop the codes will understand the issues.

We need to alert them to some of the concerns with respect to the fire service and to urge them to take a critical look at those to ensure that the standards are more robust than they are.

Q. What specifically are you doing to address the issue of residential sprinklers?

A. Because of lightweight frame construction and the fire loads that are being blended into some of the new home construction, we see the use of residential sprinklers as being beneficial from a citizens’ safety and firefighter safety perspective, and so we’ve been advocating for residential sprinklers and recognizing that that’s a key element in terms of having a comprehensive fire protection capacity within a community.

Q. There’s been a push on to increase membership in the CAFC and obviously that relates to funding – if the CAFC has more members it is better funded and therefore better able to hire consultants to lobby government. One of the issues that has come up this week is opposition by CAFC members to the use of telemarketing to fund raise. Can you address that issue?

A. Certainly. We’re not insensitive to the views of many members of the fire service who do not embrace the use of telemarketing and we understand that. It’s a bit of a challenge in that we need to have sufficient funding in order to be able to have effective lobbying to the federal government and other agencies to be able to advance the interests of the Canadian fire service, but we’re dependent on that funding.

Currently, we have approximately 1,000 members of our association and as a result of that we have limited capabilities and, by extension, we need to look at other funding sources, so we have looked at telemarketing.

Our goal is to reduce our dependence on telemarketing and one of the ways we can do that is by having a greater number of members. So, tonight at the closing banquet, you’re going to hear me talk about the relevance of the CAFC and why it’s important to support it.

We need to have ambassadors within the fire service of Canada for the CAFC. Some view us as being an old boys club or a bunch of fat cats; we are the antitheses of that.
We have new members joining our board on a regular basis – I’m a relative newcomer to the organization – and we have a very passionate group of individuals who are absolutely committed to the safety and security of our citizens. And that’s what drives us. Tonight, for example, we have more than 40 delegates here from the province of New Brunswick at this conference, which we are thrilled to have, but more important than their attendance is that we need them as members of the CAFC and we are hoping that by attending this conference and having an opportunity to learn more about what we’re doing, what the priorities are and recognizing how genuine that effort is, that they will become ambassadors for the CAFC and they will encourage other members of their home communities to join the CAFC.

This is about ensuring that we can properly address the interests of the Canadian fire service and even with 1,000 members and the board of directors from each province and territory, we know that we’ve got strong cross representation of the Canadian fire service so that we’re able to speak with a degree of unanimity.

At this conference we have added a seat to our board from the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada; that’s significant because it demonstrates that we want to be inclusive in our efforts.

For years people have maybe viewed the CAFC as being more for the career chiefs and, clearly, when you look at our membership – the numbers of volunteer and composite and career chiefs – it’s a very healthy blend.