Fire Fighting in Canada

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Repetition is key to prevention

April 18, 2022
By Len Garis and Mandy Desautels
Any intervention involving smoke alarms must ensure they are installed immediately and inspected regularly. PHOTO BY ronstik/Adobe Stock

New research highlights the importance of scheduled, repeated, and measured fire safety interventions as a key strategy for achieving sustained fire-safe behaviours in Indigenous and other vulnerable communities in Canada.

This and other insights are found in a January 2022 paper commissioned by the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council (NIFSC) to propose evidence-based practices for educational and environmental fire safety interventions in Indigenous communities in Canada. 

“Content and timing of fire safety training and inspections on First Nations communities and decision-support tool” was prepared by Joseph Clare, a professor at University of Western Australia, and Brighart Analytics, a B.C. developer of logistics and analytics tools. 

The report considers proven approaches in North America and around the world through the lens of Clare’s PhD in applied cognitive psychology, drawing on currently available data for First Nations populations living on-reserve in Canada, and research underway on fire prevention in vulnerable and Indigenous communities that has been submitted for journal publication. Based on the collected knowledge and insights, the authors developed a logistics tool to assist the NIFSC with effective program implementation and measurement.

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“The assessment of cognitive factors adds a new depth of understanding to the existing research on fire safety interventions, while the new logistics tool creates a roadmap for the more effective delivery of programs designed to reduce injuries and save lives,” said Blaine Wiggins, executive director for the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, which represents regional Indigenous emergency and fire service organizations across the country and manages the NIFSC Project. “This work has broad implications for any fire service that is working to target resources to the underserved Indigenous and other vulnerable populations that typically suffer higher fire death and injury rates.”

Insights about interventions
The report focuses on two types of interventions: people-based educational programs, and place-based building fire-safety measures. When it comes to educating vulnerable populations about fire safety, the research indicates that:

People tend to understand and retain fire safety information more when they have the opportunity to discuss the material and practice their new skills.

The involvement of fire service personnel in providing the information encourages people to change their decision-making and make safer choices related to fire safety.

Place-based interventions typically fall into three main categories: smoke alarms, residential sprinklers and enforcement. Observations from the research include:

Functioning smoke alarms are proven to reduce the risk of fire-related fatalities, but only if they are installed properly and maintained. Alarm giveaways that rely on vulnerable populations for installation or maintenance are not effective. Any intervention involving smoke alarms must ensure they are installed immediately and inspected regularly.

Residential sprinklers significantly reduce the risk of fire-related deaths. They can be built into new construction or retrofitted to existing properties, but both approaches incur an installation and maintenance cost and are beyond the scope of the fire service.

Little research or evidence of success exists related to regulatory enforcement of mandatory installation of smoke alarms, building standards, legislation about flammable children’s nightwear or standards for the ignition propensity of cigarettes. 

 The impact of the cognitive factors
While there is substantial evidence that both people-based and place-based interventions can increase fire safety knowledge and reduce related risks, there has been a lack of clarity about how the passage of time impacts the effectiveness of these programs.

From a cognitive psychology standpoint, coupled with research on training in other contexts, two main factors must be considered:

The “knowing-doing” gap, in which new knowledge does not influence how people act, as discussed by F. Joyner in the 2015 paper “Bridging the knowing/doing gap to create high engagement work cultures,” and

The “wear-off effect,” in which the benefits of training wear off over time, as described by M. Compton and V. Chein in the 2008 paper “Factors related to knowledge retention after crisis intervention.”  

 When developing interventions with long-term effectiveness, it is important to monitor the extent to which any training produces a knowing-doing gap and how long it takes trainees to forget the content and return to former unsafe behaviours.

Putting the research into action
NIFSC currently delivers fire safety programs to Indigenous communities across Canada, including community education programs targeting the behaviour and knowledge gaps that increase the risk of residential fire. Topics include cooking safety, heating safety, electrical safety, home escape planning, senior and elderly safety, multi-generational resident safety, wood heat safety, wood heat maintenance and seasonal safety.

NIFSC also delivers a smaller set of programs targeting place-based issues that increase the risk and severity of residential fire, including smoke alarms and carbon monoxide safety, and home fire safety assessments.

In addition to suggesting a program review for overlap and potential consolidation, the report proposes the development of at least two programs – one focused on educating people with the view to changing their behaviour, and one focused on reducing fire risk by increasing the likelihood of having effective fire prevention systems in place. The recommended program-delivery approach includes:   

Conducting community education programs every two years in consideration of the high-risk and transient target population, with possible future adjustments to the schedule based on collected data.

Training residents to conduct their own audits of place-based interventions such as fire safety systems and smoke alarms, and inviting them to request additional alarms from NIFSC between inspections.

Conducting fire-safety and alarm installation inspections every four years, in consideration of manufacturer’s recommendations for smoke alarms and the general requirements for inspecting built-in safety systems.

Conducting ongoing evaluations of program delivery and effectiveness, including maintaining detailed training records for individual trainees and measuring aspects such as pre- and post-training fire safety knowledge and attitudes, knowledge gain and retention, the knowing-doing gap and the wear-off effect.

Monitoring over time is critical to measure effectiveness and learn more about the patterns of behavioural change and knowledge retention for future program delivery.   

“This new information will assist us in continuing to build capacity in our Indigenous communities, by helping us more effectively provide education and increase the likelihood of functioning safety systems where people live and gather,” Wiggins said. “It will ensure we’re targeting our efforts and resources where they will have the most impact and setting our programs up for long-term success.” •


Len Garis is director of research for the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council, Fire Chief (ret) for the City of Surrey, B.C., associate scientist emeritus with the B.C. Injury Research and Prevention Unit, adjunct professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and associate to the Centre for Social Research at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), and a member of the Affiliated Research Faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Contact him at lwgaris@outlook.com 
Mandy Desautels is the director of strategic initiatives at the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada (AFAC). She holds a B.Sc. in global resource systems from the University of British Columbia and a master’s of healthcare administration from University of British Columbia. Prior to joining AFAC’s National Indigenous Fire Safety Council (NIFSC) project, she worked for BC Emergency Health Services and prominent NGOs. Contact her at MandyD@afac-apac.ca


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