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NFPA Impact: September 2010

The department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) has released a new, multi-year strategy for fire protection of First Nations communities. Although this strategy is a good first attempt, INAC falls short in its effort to increase fire department capabilities because it fails to set the standards needed as a target.

September 20, 2010
By Sean Tracey

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The department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) has released a new, multi-year strategy for fire protection of First Nations communities. Although this strategy is a good first attempt, INAC falls short in its effort to increase fire department capabilities because it fails to set the standards needed as a target. I believe the strategy will address INAC’s shortfalls or obligations, but it will not create sustainable fire protection capabilities in these at-risk communities.

According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC)’s report, Fire Prevention in Aboriginal Communities, First Nations communities experience a fire death rate 10.4 times greater than the Canadian average, and fire damage is 2.1 times greater than the Canadian average. First Nations are therefore among our highest risk communities. The aim of the INAC strategy is to provide “community services on-reserve comparable to the levels of service that would generally be available to other communities of similar size, location and circumstances.”

INAC provides an annual budget of about $15 million, or roughly $20 per person for First Nations fire protection. At first blush, this may make sense – First Nations communities should be protected to the same standards as comparable non-First Nations communities, and therefore INAC should support this. The problem is that in comparable non-First Nations communities, a risk-management decision is made by elected officials who balance the community risks against how much they are willing to pay for these services. This is lacking in the INAC model. INAC is obligated to provide capital and maintenance funds to First Nations departments, but it has no framework through which to develop a reasonable level of service. Any community can create a fire department and receive INAC funding but the issue is whether that department can be properly supported with training, apparatus and maintenance of gear. Therefore, a process is needed to determine the risk levels in individual communities, and to create a fire-protection strategy that can be supported by the community and by INAC. 

The new INAC strategy does call for a gap analysis. The problem with this is INAC has not identified the service standards. In other Canadian communities, NFPA standards are  followed, adopted, or become the standard of practice. INAC has not appeared to make this the benchmark for the service to be provided. To not provide First Nations firefighters with the same quality of training and equipment as their counterparts in other communities would expose INAC and others to potential liabilities under federal health and safety regulations. If INAC is funding the purchase of a self-contained breathing apparatus, who in INAC or the Assembly of First Nations is managing the breathing air program? This situation may therefore require a more substantial top-down review of INAC fire service funding and procedures by outside bodies and this is, perhaps, long overdue.

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With the service standards now understood, a procedure similar to that of a municipality is needed to address the risk in each community. The Ontario model may be best applied. It creates local fire authorities with a minimum level requirement to inspect on demand and run public education programs in each community. If the community, based on an approved risk assessment, establishes a fire department, then it must meet NFPA 1201, NFPA 1710, NFPA 1720, NFPA 1001 and other standards. The risk assessment to set the level of service should be carried out by INAC, in conjunction with the local fire authority, band representation, a regional/provincial First Nations rep and an outside, independent party. Currently, band councils may set the service standard but INAC is on the hook for all potential funding. Bands may have fire departments that are not sustainable.

The new INAC strategy is a good first start, but without benefit of a further look to NFPA standards and a model similar to that employed in other non-reserve communities, it will create a false sense of protection. If bands are to run fire brigades, then those brigades must be funded and equipped to recognized international consensus standards. The new model will perpetuate a system under which bands continue to run understaffed and undertrained, and ill-equipped fire departments that are a liability to INAC, their communities and their members. A true risk-based model using NFPA standards and a municipal-like risk assessment process funded fully by INAC is the key to building sustainable capabilities in First Nations communities. To do otherwise is not serving those dedicated First Nations firefighters who are already serving their communities with great pride.


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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