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NFPA Impact: August 2011

In his Volunteer Vision column in Fire Fighting in Canada in June, my friend, Chief Vince MacKenzie, asked if it is time for the fire service to revisit its thinking about standards and instead shoot for guidelines that are formulated with the sustainability of the volunteer fire service in mind.

August 4, 2011
By Sean Tracey

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In his Volunteer Vision column in Fire Fighting in Canada in June, my friend, Chief Vince MacKenzie, asked if it is time for the fire service to revisit its thinking about standards and instead shoot for guidelines that are formulated with the sustainability of the volunteer fire service in mind.

I would like to offer a counter opinion to Chief MacKenzie’s view, for I fear that taking such an approach would result in weaker requirements for already hazardous tasks, and would do little in the long run to improve fire coverage in our communities.

Standards provide reasonable expectations of safety and uniformity for the fire service. They are products of cumulative fire-ground experience. When not adopted into regulations, standards become industry best practices or benchmarks. Standards are developed by fire-service committees, with full opportunity for fire-service members to comment. Yes, the requirements set out in the standards are a challenge for volunteer firefighters and departments (and, in some case, the career end of the spectrum) to meet, but they drive change in our profession. In the absence of federal and provincial funding, do we lower the standards in order to create a false reality of compliance? Or do we need to do a better job of identifying the deficiencies and concerns of fire services or departments that can’t meet these international benchmarks? 

The NFPA has just released the third edition of its Fire Service Needs Assessment (the earlier editions were produced in 2001 and 2005). This document is available on the NFPA website at www.nfpa.org. It provides a good snapshot of the fire service in the United States and how far it has progressed in key areas in the past decade. Here are some notable observations from the document:

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  • Needs have declined considerably in a number of areas – particularly personal protective and firefighting equipment, two resources that received the largest shares of funding from the U.S. Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program.
  • Declines in needs have been more modest in other important areas, including training, that have received much smaller shares of AFG funds.
  • Still other areas of need, such as apparatuses, stations and the staffing required to support the stations, have seen either limited reductions in need (e.g., apparatus needs in rural areas) or no reductions at all (e.g., adequacy of stations and personnel to meet standards and other guidance on speed and size of response).

These points add some interesting context to Chief MacKenzie’s comments. Many of the gains in the United States fire service can be attributed to the federal grants – in other words, funding from outside of municipal budgets. If similar funding had been available to Canadian fire departments over the last several years, it is likely that we would have experienced similar changes with respect to equipment. But, as Chief MacKenzie pointed out, in Canada, there has been little or no gain in the areas of apparatuses, training, stations and staffing – areas that are funded by municipalities.

Having access to outside funding might solve equipment issues but it does little to solve training and staffing issues. The fire service needs to re-evaluate how these service levels are identified in communities. Probably the most substantive changes in the fire service in training and manpower in North America occurred in Quebec since 2001. This is due to the introduction of the risk management in cover planning concept under Quebec’s Schémas de couverture de risques, under which communities evaluated their risks, determined their service levels and then identified the training and resource deficiencies. In this case, NFPA standards 1001, 1710 and 1720 were retained as the benchmarks for these services – Quebec did not lower these standards. Similar exercises in other provinces would do wonders in identifying the services needed in communities and the need for public funding; it would also mean buy-in from the communities in support of the service standards. Therefore, in my opinion, the solution is not to amend the standards, but to heighten the awareness of the gaps in fire coverage and determination of service levels.

Currently, each community determines its service level and whether it can meet established standards. This status quo – a lack of provincially required fire-risk coverage plans – is not working. We need to rethink the way that services are being provided and not assume that lowering the standards is the best solution. We need to follow Quebec’s lead and look at regional fire-risk plans as provincial requirements. This is the best way to ensure sustainable fire services across Canada.



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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