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NFPA Impact: March 2010

A report from the NFPA that compares fire departments in Canada and the U.S. reveals some surprising and disturbing trends. Every year for the past eight years NFPA has mailed out a survey to Canadian fire departments.

March 15, 2010
By Sean Tracey

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A report from the NFPA that compares fire departments in Canada and the U.S. reveals some surprising and disturbing trends. Every year for the past eight years NFPA has mailed out a survey to Canadian fire departments. The latest and most telling report has been released from NFPA and is available to NFPA members at www.nfpa.org. The report is entitled Fire Departments in Canada, 2006-2008. For the first time, the report attempts to make a comparison between the Canadian and U.S. fire services. In the past I have said that the fire services in both countries were culturally the same – by that I mean we share the same standards, equipment and practices. This report is intriguing in that in almost all categories there were marked differences between Canadian and U.S. fire departments. The results beg the questions why and what do we do with this information?

The NFPA survey is compiled from a mailing that goes out to one-third of departments each year with an enclosed, paid envelope for the respondents. Over this three-year period, 1,733 fire departments responded, which represented a 28 per cent return rate. The survey responses came in from all areas of Canada and therefore appear to be a reasonably accurate snapshot of the fire service in Canada.

The first two tables show the number of career and volunteer firefighters in communities based on the population sizes of these communities. Canada reported fewer career firefighters based on community size than the U.S. while both countries had similar percentages of volunteer fighters. It was noted that in the U.S. there was a higher number of career fire departments – Canada appears to have a higher reliance on volunteer fire departments. In simple terms, a medium-sized city in Canada is more likely to be protected by a volunteer fire department than in the U.S. 

Subsequent tables further highlight significant differences between the countries. Canadian departments tended to cover a larger geographical area than their U.S. counterparts. OK, this may be a no-brainer. But in medium-sized communities, the areas being covered were orders of magnitude greater in Canada than in the U.S. The results also showed that there were significantly fewer fire stations per 100 square miles in Canada than in the U.S. This translates into longer runs and higher response times in Canada than for similar sized communities in the U.S. The report then compared the numbers of apparatus – both pumpers and aerials – based on community size. Again, the differences between Canadian and U.S. communities were significant. In all community sizes in Canada, the numbers of pumpers and aerials were well below comparable communities in the U.S. Why?

What does this tell us? What does it mean? Is this acceptable? Is this just the Canadian way? Do we have to accept this? 

One explanation could be our respective histories and views towards public protection, more specifically the military. Throughout Canadian history we have been rather trusting and reliant on a militia approach. We have always relied on the response to come from within the community and had a voluntary response to threats. The U.S. has always had larger government agencies and a higher expectation of established community protection and a higher expectation of public service. This we can see in the larger numbers of career firefighters in the U.S. and the greater acceptance of an established fire service. This translates to more career firefighters per community and more apparatus. The U.S. just seems more willing to pay for a public protection service.

What will this mean for Canadian communities in the future? Well, we are already forecasting that the generation succeeding baby boomers will have less interest in volunteerism. U.S. departments will suffer less because they have a higher proportion of career departments. Canadian fire departments will have a greater threat in future years as the volunteer replenishment flow dries up. This, in turn, will likely result in higher loss rates in Canada than in the U.S. We will, therefore, need to look at alternatives to maintain our standards. This will mean enhanced codes to prevent and control fires (including a reliance on residential fire sprinklers). We will also need a greater reliance on public education programs or we risk seeing our fire loss rate drop further below that of the U.S.

I have always considered Canada and the U.S. fire services to be culturally the same. The most recent survey from NFPA is highlighting that this may not be the case as there are telling gaps between the two countries. Should we accept this? This has potential repercussions for Canada in the future unless we begin to take action now.


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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