Fire Fighting in Canada

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Perspectives: February 2013

You won’t find many young people who admit to idolizing Clark Kent, the everyday working man. They idolized his alter ego, Superman, and who wouldn’t? Superman’s mission was to intentionally place himself in dangerous and stressful situations to help others.

February 4, 2013
By Rob Grimwood

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You won’t find many young people who admit to idolizing Clark Kent, the everyday working man. They idolized his alter ego, Superman, and who wouldn’t? Superman’s mission was to intentionally place himself in dangerous and stressful situations to help others. Does this sound familiar? If you work in emergency services it does, because every day, paramedics and firefighters go to work to intentionally place themselves in dangerous and/or stressful situations to help people in need.

Many emergency-service workers were attracted to the profession because of the excitement and adrenaline that it brings; I know I was. As a child I would watch with pride as my father responded to calls as a firefighter and ambulance attendant, gripped by the excitement and unpredictability of it all. I remember starting my profession as a paramedic and firefighter at a very young age, hoping that the next call would be even more exciting than the last. In my mind the bigger the crisis, the better.

During those times, the sole focus of the firefighting and EMS professions was to respond to emergencies. Sure, there was training to keep skills sharp, but that was about it. The concept of fire prevention was still relatively new, public education was sporadic and ideas such as community para-medicine and formal pre-planning were not even on the radar. Being a firefighter or paramedic was a whole lot more Superman than Clark Kent.

It is interesting to look back on the last 20 years and marvel at the changes that have occurred. What strikes me first is the role that research has played in the development of fire fighting and EMS. When my father was a firefighter and ambulance attendant through the 1970s and 1980s, he and others did what they were told to do and what seemed to have worked at the last call. The concept of actually conducting research to determine what skills and practices would achieve success was a new and novel approach that  hadn’t yet been fully explored.

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Today’s firefighters use equipment and skills that weren’t even dreamt of 20 years ago. From the features of today’s SCBAs, to the improved protection of bunker gear and other PPE, the advancement of the Incident Management System (IMS), the introduction of accountability systems, safety officers and rapid intervention teams, and the substantially improved training firefighters receive, it is clear that fire fighting has come a long way in a short period of time. It is not often that people associate behind-the-scenes research and development with the fire service but a quick search of National Institute of Standards and Technology testing and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health investigations clearly demonstrates that the advancements and development of tactics and equipment are undoubtedly the result of hard work being done behind the scenes.

Add to that the vast improvements in building codes, fire-safety inspections, enforcement of the fire code and public education, fire dispatch/communications systems, and the work firefighters now do between calls and it becomes clear that this is a substantially different profession than it once was.

The other point that strikes me is the incredible growth of the supporting divisions or non-responders within the fire fighting and EMS professions. In the past, the overwhelming majority of staff and resources were dedicated to emergency response (Superman) while only a few people worked behind the scenes (Clark Kent). Today, while the majority of staff and resources are still dedicated to emergency response, the allocation of resources to the behind-the-scenes Clark Kent roles has grown substantially. Fire departments are allocating more staff and resources to fire prevention, inspections and public education than ever before. Training divisions have grown significantly, communications divisions are becoming more sophisticated, many departments have dedicated mechanical staff, and larger departments are actually dedicating staff and resources to quality assurance, health and safety, research and development and planning. On the EMS side, most ambulance services survived with just a few supervisors dedicated to anything other than front-line patient care. That has changed drastically with EMS services now staffing training, quality assurance, community para-medicine and other support divisions.

If you believe, as I do, that the fire and EMS professions have come a long way in the last 20 years and now provide quicker, safer, more advanced and more effective service to the public, then consider that the reason may very well be that we have learned how to be a little less Superman and a little more Clark Kent.


Rob Grimwood is the manager of emergency services/fire chief for Haldimald County, Ont., a position that combines the roles of fire chief, manager of emergency medical services, and community emergency management co-ordinator. Prior to coming to Haldimand County, Rob was a firefighter with the Toronto Fire Services, a volunteer firefighter/officer with the Niagara-on-the-Lake Fire Department, and a paramedic with the Regional Municipality of Niagara. Contact him at rgrimwood@haldimandcounty.on.ca


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