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Q-and-A with Chief Tremblay

Serge Tremblay was appointed chief of the Service de sécurité incendie de Montreal in 2004, after spending 28 years working his way up the ranks from firefighter in various jurisdictions. As chief in one of Canada’s largest cities, he runs a department in which firefighting challenges are numerous and varied. Chief Tremblay took time to speak with Fire Fighting in Canada in late October.

December 5, 2008
By James Careless

Topics

Montreal boss lists union issues, old buildings and underground city as challenges during tenure

tremblay
Serge Tremblay has been the fire chief in Montreal since 2004. 
Photo courtesy Service de sécurité incendie de Montreal


Serge Tremblay was appointed chief of the Service de sécurité incendie de Montreal in 2004, after spending 28 years working his way up the ranks from firefighter in various jurisdictions. As chief in one of Canada’s largest cities, he runs a department in which firefighting challenges are numerous and varied. Chief Tremblay took time to speak with Fire Fighting in Canada in late October.

FFIC: What are the biggest challenges in fighting fires in Montreal?

Chief Tremblay: There are many challenges. One is the age of our city.

Some of our oldest residences are connected to each other, with wooden sheds attached or close to the back. What this means is that, if a fire starts in one of these sheds, it can spread to the house and from there to other houses connected to it. Such buildings tend to be rental units, which means they may not be up to modern code.

Then there’s our underground city, which runs almost 30 kilometres under the downtown core. This is the largest such complex in the world, and it represents some unusual challenges. For instance, if a fire breaks out in one of the shopping areas, the smoke can spread into the office buildings that are connected to it. This can force some rather large evacuations, which is a real problem during the business day when so many people are working here.

FFIC: How about your resources? Do you have enough to do the job?

Chief Tremblay: That’s an interesting question. Back in 2002, 22 fire departments were brought together under amalgamation. These were 22 departments with their own ways of doing things. As well, the bylaws that they worked under, like those governing smoke detectors, also varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Since that time, we have been working diligently to integrate these 22 units into one seamless Montreal Fire Department. Collectively, we protect a population of 1.8 million over an area of almost 500 square kilometres. To do the job, we have about 2,300 firefighters plus 400 civilians, equipped with over 400 vehicles, of which 142 are fire apparatus. We are currently renewing our fleet; by 2011, we will have spent $80 million in new equipment.

So do we have enough resources to do the job? Yes, but we need more, based on the Fire Safety Risk Cover Plan that we drew up on the behest of the province. This plan specifies what fire risks we have to deal with, and what our strategy is for doing so. As a result, the Montreal Fire Department will be hiring 209 new people over the next five years starting in 2009, of which 137 will be firefighters. We will be building more fire stations and acquiring new pieces of equipment.

FFIC: I understand that smoke detectors are a primary concern of yours?

Chief Tremblay:
Yes, It’s very sad: Every year we have deaths that can be traced back either to a lack of smoke detectors, or detectors that aren’t working because their batteries are dead or missing. We have managed to reduce the death rate through increased public awareness to nine in 2007. In previous years, it has run between 15 to 18 deaths annually.

Under our Fire Safety Risk Cover Plan, we are trying to have one bylaw governing smoke detectors created to cover all of Montreal, rather than the 22 bylaws that exist now. We want to have a tough law, and improve it by requiring people to use 10 year lithium batteries in their detectors. This will improve the odds that the detectors will work when they are needed.

These are deaths that just shouldn’t be happening. Too many people are living without proper smoke detectors.

montreal
Old Montreal is a tourist attraction but the age of the buildings and the fact that some residences are connected to each other pose a threat for firefighters, says Chief Serge Tremblay.


FFIC: Are you concerned about CBRN threats? If so, what actions have you taken to prepare for them?

Chief Tremblay: Since 9-11 occurred, large cities like Montreal have become more concerned about being prepared for CBRN incidents. This is why we have formed a joint anti-terrorism committee in the city, with all relevant agencies working together to plan strategies.

In 2005, we held a major multi-agency simulated incident downtown. It was called Metropole 2005, and it modelled a VX nerve gas attack in a Metro station. We learned a lot from it.

We have also upgraded our CAD at a cost of $15 million, and we are in the middle of a three-year plan to bring the entire department up to first responder status. This means that all of the fire stations and personnel will be operating at the highest level by 2009. It is a huge challenge.

FFIC: Finally, what is your biggest goal as chief?

Chief Tremblay:
Besides the items I have listed so far, I am concerned about the department’s historical relationship with our union. For too many years, there has been confrontation between both sides, as if we were not dedicated to the same goals and public service.

This is something I want to change. I want to tone down the conflict and get us working together. After all, we have achieved much as a team; especially since the amalgamation in 2002 and all the adapting we all have done.

I am very proud of my department and everyone who belongs to it. We are all members of the Montreal Fire Department at the end of the day; whether firefighter or chief. We are all on the same side.


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