Fire Fighting in Canada

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NFPA Impact: Prevention still the key to reducing fire losses

Over the past decade Canadians have experienced increased costs for the deployment of firefighting services. These are due in part to the increased expenses to train, deploy and equip firefighters. Cost-conscious community leaders will begin to question these costs, seeking tangible measurements of the benefits of these services.

February 25, 2009
By Sean Tracey

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Over the past decade Canadians have experienced increased costs for the deployment of firefighting services. These are due in part to the increased expenses to train, deploy and equip firefighters. Cost-conscious community leaders will begin to question these costs, seeking tangible measurements of the benefits of these services. We need to do a better job proving our benefit to our communities and we can no longer rest on the high regard of taxpayers for the fire services.

The best way to do this is to focus on reducing property losses. And the best way to reduce property fire losses is to eliminate fires before they occur or contain them before the fire department arrives. We therefore need to place a greater emphasis on fire prevention.

A review of national fire statistics compiled by the Canadian Council of Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners (last report dated 2002) showed that despite the increased costs, new technology, new building codes and standards, fire losses have increased in the past decade by 5.8 per cent in adjusted dollars. Yet, as costs increased and codes became more stringent, there has been no corresponding decrease in fire losses.

A significant portion of fires occur in older properties that are not equipped with current fire-protection systems and are not subject to the current building code. (The Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes estimates that 50 per cent of all construction underway in Canada is outside of the scope of the building code). Low-cost public housing is in short supply and once lost to fire will not likely be replaced.

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A review of loss history in most communities will reveal that fires are more frequent in these kinds of occupancies and the majority of occupants do not carry household insurance. We know that residential fire sprinklers save lives but they can also protect irreplaceable public housing. Retrofitting municipally owned housing with sprinklers can ensure life safety and the continued use of these units. Similar cases can be made for the increased protection of other high-value assets such as schools, hospitals and essential industries. We cannot rely on the building code to change these; it is in the hands of the fire-prevention community to convince the public of the need to rethink fire prevention in our communities.

The status quo does not work. We need to increase the value of fire prevention by evaluating fire risks in our communities and have specific programs to address these risks, regardless of the size of our communities. A recent U.K. insurance study found that 80 per cent of businesses will not reopen following a major fire. Are there any businesses that your communities are prepared to do without? Communities need to protect these businesses through an enhanced, co-operative, fire-prevention program that works with the business owners.

Fire prevention personnel can work with community leaders to evaluate their risks and, if necessary, upgrade their fire protection or safety systems to reduce the potential for fire losses. This would be an excellent way to showcase the value of fire-protection services in the community. We then need to report these activities to municipal councils. New tools in fire prevention reporting can be found in NFPA’s Fire Protection Research Foundation recent report Measuring Code Compliance Effectiveness for Fire-Related Portions of Codes.  

The further need to focus on fire prevention was also recently highlighted in the Institute of Fire Engineers U.S. Branch in its Vision 20/20 National Strategy for Fire Loss Prevention report. This was funded through a Department of Homeland Security grant to develop a comprehensive strategy for fire prevention in the U.S. The project’s goal was to help to bring together fire prevention efforts and focus efforts collectively to effectively address the fire problem in the U.S. The key strategies of the plan were:

Strategy 1: Increase advocacy for fire prevention;

Strategy 2: Conduct a national fire safety education/social marketing campaign;

Strategy 3: Raise the importance of fire prevention within the fire service;

Strategy 4: Promote technology to enhance fire and life safety;

Strategy 5:
Refine and improve the application of codes and standards that enhance public and firefighter safety and preserve community assets.

The full report is available at www.strategicfire.org. Note that none of these strategies calls for the formation of more effective firefighting systems. Rather, they frame a national strategy that should be the basis for the role of our much-needed national fire advisor. 

We need a greater focus on fire prevention activities as it is only through these that we can make a dent in the fire losses across Canada. Every community should have a primary focus on fire prevention focused specifically on the risks within that community, with fire suppression being a measure of last resort.


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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