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Q & A: Mandatory minimum certification for Ontario’s firefighters

April 18, 2022
By Transcribed from Fire Fighting in Canada:The Podcast

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On Jan. 28, the Ontario government released a draft regulation to create mandatory minimum

certification standards for specific fire protection services. Rob Grimwood, president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and deputy chief for Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services, joined Fire Fighting in Canada: The Podcast host Fire Chief Tom DeSorcy to discuss details of the proposed new rules and what it means for Ontario’s fire service. 

The following is a transcript of Fire Fighting in Canada: The Podcast’s March episode sponsored by Cubit Fire. This podcast has been edited and condensed. 

DeSorcy: We’re going talk today about certification and what’s going on in Ontario. First off, a little bit of history and background, can you tell us where and this how this began? This didn’t happen overnight. 

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Grimwood: No, it most certainly didn’t. It’s probably been about 10 years now. We used to have what we call the Ontario Fire Service Standards. It was a made-in-Ontario standard for each position: firefighter, officer, training, prevention, and so forth. It included all of the typical job performance requirements, but about 10 years ago, we came to realize that we’re basically just replicating the NFPA standards. There was no significant difference, no real advantage. And we know that the NFPA does a great job. They update them every five years and they’re very robust. Frankly, we just saw it as redundant. Why would we try and have our own standards that say almost exactly the same thing, and struggle to have the capacity to keep them up? 

In Ontario, the fire college shifted. We had a firefighter curriculum, a company officer curriculum and that migrated to become NFPA, 1001, 1021, and so forth. Then, a few years ago, the provincial government went this route and posted and approved the regulation that would regulate mandatory minimum training standards and certification. It was a similar standard, or regulation, to what you see today. It was met with a lot of resistance, I guess, is a fair statement. We had adopted NFPA, we had embraced the idea of that as a training standard, but the idea of making it mandatory was very new. There was a lot of discussion about the achievability. 

Ontario is not unlike any of the other provinces but we’re very, very diverse. I mean, you’re talking about applying a regulation to the City of Toronto that has three million residents and 3000 firefighters, and applying the exact same regulation to a one building, one truck, department that runs 10 calls a year with eight volunteers, and everything in between. The government of the day repealed it with the intention of trying to figure out what was missing; what drove the resistance. How can we help departments get from point A to point B? That’s the work that’s going on behind the scenes. On January 28, a new version of the regulation with some built-in flexibility, changes and a wider engagement of members was released.

DeSorcy: If I’m a small volunteer department in Ontario, what does this do for me? What do I have to do or what changes do I have to make to continue to operate?

Grimwood: That’s the million-dollar question for a lot of our volunteer departments. And what it comes down to is, what are you doing today? If what you’re doing today is already training to NFPA standards, all it means for you is that you have to have the evaluation piece. You would have four years for most of the components and six years for technical rescue. The Ontario Fire Marshal’s office would arrange and send out an evaluator at no cost. An evaluator would attend your department, and you would demonstrate the skills. 

One of the biggest changes this time around is that if you’re a full-service department, which is interior fire attack tech, auto extrication and hazmat, you would certify the NFPA standard. The evaluator [conducts] the written test and the practical skills. 

For most volunteer chiefs, what we’re trying to tell them is that as much as this is scary, it’s change, right? And change is scary for a lot of people. It’s work and it’s going to require a bit of a cultural shift. At the end of this process, it gives you that defined training program, the roadmap. We’re hoping that chiefs embrace it and most of our chiefs are embracing it. What you get is consistency and standardization. You know that your firefighters have met the minimum standard. Your apparatus operators, your officers, they have met the rigorous NFPA standard, and you have a better, safer fire department. 

Now, if you’re not a full-service department, you’re not required to certify to NFPA, you’re just required to demonstrate the skills to which your department provides to the Fire Marshal’s Office and you’ll receive a letter of compliance. The OAFC sees that as a big win. It was going to be very difficult to get an exterior attack fire department certified to NFPA 1001 for firefighters because it’s not skills they perform, so we think that this new regulation has that flexibility.

DeSorcy: B.C. did this a number of years ago with the playbook, which I’m sure you’re familiar with. We had to declare what training standard we were going to train toward, the exterior, interior or full service. What other feedback have you had, if any, from other provinces, now that you’ve taken this step?

Grimwood: That’s a very interesting point. I actually haven’t had any feedback from the other provinces. We’ve been so focused on engaging our members. We have 441 different fire departments. The OAFC board of directors, through a series of 16 virtual meetings, talked to 550 of our members across the province. It’s a great question. We haven’t had any dialogue with other provinces, but I’m assuming at some point we will.

DeSorcy: When B.C. first came out with the playbook, it was brand new. With smaller departments like mine, where we trained but didn’t have the regime, this raised our game and brought us into a different world. I, at first, and maybe I’m still the same, don’t care for the terms exterior, interior and full service. It seems to me that the public doesn’t understand if we make a public declaration. That’s what we have to do in our local government. Our council has to declare the level that we’re going to train toward and if we said we were going to be exterior, the public thinks that we’re going stand by and watch their house burned down. How do you how do you answer that? 

Grimwood: We actually see the process of every municipality reviewing and revising their level of service as being one of the other big wins of this. We have departments in Ontario who haven’t updated bylaws on their levels of service in decades. We’re hearing from fire chiefs that the last time it was approved by council was in the 1970s. So, you nailed it. There’s a disconnect between what we do, what the public expects from us and what our councils believe that we’re doing. Again, as much as it adds work for fire chiefs, we actually see that as maybe the biggest win of all: All 441 of our departments are going to have that discussion with council. What do you expect of us? What do you see our level of services being? As a fire chief, this is the level of support I would need. This is the level of staffing and funding. If you see us as performing these eight services, I need this. And having that that really transparent discussion with residents so that they understand exactly what it means. The interior and exterior is one piece. But the technical rescue, I think, is a really big animal where departments are not necessarily aligned with the expectations of their councils and citizens. If somebody falls through a hole in the ice, are we really trained and equipped to perform the rescue? Or is it just wording in our bylaws? We see that as a parallel project for the chiefs and we see that as having huge benefit to public and firefighter safety.

DeSorcy: When you went around to your members, was it a sales pitch? “It’s mandatory, this is the way it’s going to be,” or did you have to sell it, especially to the smaller departments?

Grimwood: We took a different approach, which is less talking and more listening. The Fire Marshal’s Office did their own technical briefings and were the ones that were really presenting what this looks like. The OAFC wanted to hear from our members and ask them “what are the stumbling blocks?” “What are the concerns with implementing?” We knew that resistance got this regulation repealed at a certain point in time and we wanted to hear from them. We compiled 100-plus pages of things that our members said and because we heard from them, we were able to theme it. Some of them are just clarifying misunderstandings like “how do I interpret this part of the regulation?” Some of them are feedback about training programs. Some of them are them saying, “I don’t have the budget right now to do this. Is there going to be education for council so they understand what this means?’ At the end of the day, I fully see this as achievable. We take what our members say, we work with the Fire Marshal’s Office, and we go through the list of what the members see as roadblocks. They’re not insurmountable at all. Let’s bring this to a successful conclusion. I see our organization as being very much solutions driven. 

DeSorcy: Were there any concerns that took you by surprise? What were biggest questions that came out of that?

Grimwood: I wouldn’t say anything took us by surprise. Because we’re such a large province with so many departments and so varied, we heard from chiefs who said that they want to be more empowered to be able to do this in-house. Moving to online testing was a big theme. These are all good things. They talked about accessibility to specialized training, like hazardous materials and technical rescue, and who’s going to deliver that training because it’s complicated and has material costs. The fire service has been training forever but the idea of doing a written test doesn’t happen in most departments. They talked about the need to acquire enough textbooks and online subscriptions for their members. It was a case of theming everything and trying to put them in the right buckets so that we could work through them.

DeSorcy: It’s quite a large project for the OAFC to be taking on. Is this something that is going to be maintained by the OAFC or is it something that will be under the umbrella of a Fire Marshal’s Office?

Grimwood: It’s absolutely the Fire Marshal’s Office that has ownership over the regulation. The OAFC sees ourselves as a partner, our members look to us for support…We will keep a repository of training programs and training plans from departments who have achieved this. If I’m a chief of a town of 8000 people and I’m struggling, I can go to the OAFC and I say, “do you have a chief of town of 8000 people who’s done this?” I see the OAFC providing that member support and helping each other, but this is the Fire Marshal’s Office. They’ve got ownership over it, but they work exceptionally well with us. I do see it as a partnership also.

DeSorcy: I’ve always been a big proponent of being involved in associations in this business in particular. When I first saw the playbook come out, I treated it as validation for what we were trying to do and where we want it to go. Is that kind of the positive theme you’re seeing as well?

Grimwood: Absolutely. That’s the other thing we’re telling chiefs. If you’re already training, having somebody show up at your department on a training night from a from a neutral third party, and having your crews demonstrate the knowledge, is absolutely validation of your training program. And I mean, none of us are perfect. If you learn something or you tweak your training program, you make a few improvements, then ultimately your firefighters benefit. We see this improving the safety and performance of firefighters, without a doubt. 

DeSorcy: Wearing the hat of the president of the OAFC, it’s been a tough couple of years. Can you talk quickly about the importance of your association in the fire service?

Grimwood: No doubt, it has been a tough two years. We see the association as serving the members. We see ourselves as that frontline resource. If a member has an issue, they need help, they need assistance, they call us. But we also do see ourselves as that political advocacy group, and that’s really paid off through COVID. It’s impossible to have 441 different fire departments trying to advocate on their own for access to vaccinations and access to personal protective equipment early on in the pandemic. In Ontario, our departments were running out of masks and whatnot. The OAFC took on a leadership role, where we spoke on behalf of all fire departments and had those open discussions. Our provincial government, frankly, was incredibly responsive. We ended up being able to advocate for early access to vaccinations, advocate for personal protective equipment that was provided through the Fire Marshal’s Office, and we shared best practices through COVID. The association plays a huge role. We are really here to serve the members. •


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