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NFPA Impact: September 2011

What has changed with the Canadian fire service since 9-11?

September 7, 2011
By Sean Tracey

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What has changed with the Canadian fire service since 9-11? There has been some advancement of issues in the United States, but the United States was more directly impacted, so this would be expected. What I did not expect to see when I started examining the state of the Canadian fire service since 9-11 is how little things have changed here. Look at support to municipal first responders – this is critical, and as both the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) have been pointing out to the federal government, the municipal fire service is the nation’s first response to any crisis. Municipal fire departments are the best available pool of resources in any community to carry out mitigable measures, as well as to provide the initial response to any disaster. Municipal fire departments should be adequately protected and resourced in this critical role.

One measure of the government’s commitment to building resilience is funding and resources for equipment and training to build preparedness in Canadian fire services. However, this is usually a municipal mandate, and municipalities generally fund only to the absolute minimum. In the United States, there has been a major influx of cash to municipalities from the federal government in the past decade through Assistance to Firefighter and SAFER grants. Between 2001 and 2010, more than $4.7 billion was made available to assist American fire departments. Between 2005 and 2010, $1.1 billion was funnelled through the SAFER grant program to help with recruitment and hiring, and $214 million was spent on fire-prevention and fire-safety awards: this equates to about $1.90 per capita per year in federal funding going to municipal departments to increase their readiness levels. In 2003, this peaked at $705 million.

The NFPA has been involved with three rounds of review of fire-service needs. The latest firefighters need assessment report, available on the NFPA website (www.nfpa.org), shows that there have been gains in areas such as protective equipment. These gains, however, were directly tied to federal grants to augment municipal funding. (See my August 2011 Fire Fighting in Canada column.)

In Canada, the federal government has provided annual funding to the tune of $3 million to support the development of heavy urban search-and-rescue capabilities and $5 million over five years to the IAFF for the rollout of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives (CBRNE) training, starting in 2008. Municipal departments also have access to the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP). Through this, the federal government provides funds to match provincial and municipal contributions “to enhance the national capacity to respond to all types of emergencies and to enhance the resiliency of critical infrastructure.” However, “JEPP funds may not be used to finance events or equipment purchases of departments or agencies for activities considered to be part of their normal responsibilities.” This leaves a very narrow area of need funded by the federal government. Since 1980 the Canadian government has provided JEPP funding of $165 million to the provinces, or an average of $8 million a year. In 2010, it was announced that this funding would be reduced by $2 million a year starting in 2011. Now, if one includes the HUSAR and CBRNE funding, this amounts to about $117 million since 2001, or an average of only 35 cents per capita, per year (a dismal 18 per cent of the funding rate in the United States) to build resilience in our first responders – a clear indication of disinterest in building community-preparedness capability.

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Canada has developed a CBRNE resilience strategy and action plan, which is intended to be implemented over the next three to five years. It is “to provide the policy framework that guides the creation and maintenance of sustainable capabilities, common standards and steers investments in CBRNE policies, programs, equipment, and training in a common direction.” This is just one area, and it does not appear to have a component to help fund municipal departments. It is also just one risk component. What about all the envisioned risks coming from environmental change – flooding, wildland fires, building-to-building fire spread? A review of the Public Safety Canada disaster database revealed only two explosion or chemical-release disasters in Canada in the past decade. Other disasters (to which the fire service is the first response) showed 478 incidents.

So what can we conclude from this? Canadians support and hold the fire service in high esteem. Our federal politicians and bureaucrats, however, do not get it. Canadian fire departments remain our first line of response, yet most departments are understaffed and under-resourced for the potential roles they are expected to perform. Resources (and thus, resilience) are determined in communities based on the lowest amount the community is willing to spend for a fire response. No one envisions the disasters, and when they occur they have far-reaching consequences. If we want to build a more resilient Canada, we need to augment municipal funding.


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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