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NFPA Impact: May 2009

The fire service is not immune to the downturn in the economy. Pressures at the municipal level to see savings are increasing as other municipal departments face cuts. The fire service cannot rest on the public’s previously favourable view and, like other departments, must rationalize the services it provides.

April 22, 2009
By Sean Tracey

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The fire service is not immune to the downturn in the economy. Pressures at the municipal level to see savings are increasing as other municipal departments face cuts. The fire service cannot rest on the public’s previously favourable view and, like other departments, must rationalize the services it provides. We are beginning to see communities having to rationalize the size and service levels or, in the worst cases, to achieve arbitrary fixed savings based on percentages without rationalizing services. The problem is that there is a divide-and-conquer approach as each community reviews its levels of service. We must take a more active view in optimizing service levels. If you see this not as a crisis but as an opportunity then you may be able garner better support from your council and produce an effective fire plan for your community for the next decade.

Internationally, fire services are experiencing similarly intense pressure to rationalize. If viewed by outside business management experts and not in co-operation with the fire service using a risk management approach, the impact could be devastating and difficult to overcome.

Recently, in England, a controversial report by the audit commission said that significant savings could be realized in the fire service. The report stated that nationally, the fire service could save up to £200 million a year from an annual £2.1 billion a year in public funding in 47 fire departments – that’s a staggering almost 10 per cent in operating funds. The report states: “Fire services must continually evaluate and monitor the impact of their activities to ensure they deliver value for money.”

This, the reasoning goes, could be done through several methods, such as changing shift arrangements – decreasing size based on risk analysis – reducing the number of wholetime firefighters, removing pumpers from service, using smaller cheaper apparatus, accepting longer run times and reducing absences.

In England, the Fire Brigades Union opposes this but, in my opinion, the genie is already out of the bottle as the audit commission report is in the public domain. This will be a daunting task considering that some of the examples pointed out in the report are already in place in some fire services but are being suggested across the board without considering the risks in each community. Similar initiatives could be raised in municipalities across Canada and we would be severely challenged to answer some of these recommendations. Each community is different and faces varying risks. It is also more challenging here as we lack national data and best practices. The result would be that each fire service would end up defending itself in isolation.

We need sound tools to be able to analyze the levels of services at a community level. Even benchmarking ourselves to surrounding communities is not enough. This just supports a status quo and may not necessarily result in increased services.

Each community needs to perform a fire hazards analysis that is the basis for a future master plan. Quebec is already doing this under the requirements of its community risk management plans. Each community performs its risk review and sets its level of service, and the province reviews these. The result, in my opinion, is that Quebec fire services will escape the downturn relatively unscathed. Communities will not be re-evaluating their fire services. They may even see increased resources for training to meet the risk needs in their communities.

The Canadian fire service needs to introduce community risk hazard analysis into the overall review. When the value audit rears its ugly head, see it as an opportunity. Ask that the value audit be based on a fire risk-hazard analysis. This would ideally look at a broad spectrum of representative properties in the community as well as typical dwellings and high-value assets such as hospitals and unique or essential industries. Then, look at factors such as probability of fire occurrence and potential repercussions. From this analysis, appropriate response levels can be determined and alternative services can be identified. The community then needs to look at optimizing the time and activities of the fire service. This should be based on standards for training and public education programs and other services that can be performed in the community. Use this as an opportunity to ground your service levels in your community and incorporate them into a future master plan.

The Canadian fire service should brace for the oncoming storm of public review or “value audits”. Look at these as opportunities to be able to define service levels and introduce new services. Union and management can use the opportunity to build a better, more complete, community protective service that can weather the next decade.


Sean Tracey, P.Eng., MIFireE, is the Canadian regional manager of the National Fire Protection Association International and formerly the Canadian Armed Forces fire marshal. Contact him at stracey@nfpa.org


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