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Firelines: August 2014

When Mrs. Smith is enduring the worst moments of her life and calls for help, she expects a well-trained, well-equipped fire department to show up promptly and resolve the problem.

August 1, 2014 
By Dave Balding

When Mrs. Smith is enduring the worst moments of her life and calls for help, she expects a well-trained, well-equipped fire department to show up promptly and resolve the problem. Members of the Fraser Lake fire department may tire of hearing that from me, but I believe we owe that to the public we protect.

That opening statement identifies three significant premises – often challenges – to fire departments across Canada, whether large or small, career or volunteer, brand new or well established.

The first component – well-trained firefighters – is a goal every one of us strives to achieve, from the seemingly insurmountable mass of knowledge and skills we must grasp when we first start out in the fire service, to the challenges of keeping those skills fresh and that muscle memory alive. No matter what the environment or subject material, a vibrant training program must exist and high-quality training must be consistently delivered. Do your firefighters know the relevance of their training? If they’re simply doing drills because they are told to, there may not be much buy-in. If they understand that drills are performed frequently to enhance skills and reduce times in order to provide a more effective response for Mrs. Smith, firefighters will be much more motivated to train. Have you asked your firefighters for suggestions about training, such as areas they feel need more attention? How do we keep senior members or those who are well accomplished engaged in those training exercises which, by necessity, happen over and over? Why not have these firefighters help with a mini-presentation or assist in running a drill?

Aside from the core response activities, many fire departments choose to deliver additional services such as medical aid and various types of technical rescue. We join this profession to help others, so it’s only natural to take on these additional roles. However, doing so comes with a price – the cost of the required equipment, which may include a dedicated piece of apparatus, and the expense of responding to the incidents. The department must become proficient at its new specialized type of response, which may place an additional burden on an already potentially strained training program. Departments should look at their capabilities very closely and ensure they can withstand the increased demands placed on them by additional response capabilities.


One would expect the second component – a well-equipped fire department – to be a given. But gone are the days when emergency services were the sacred cows and dire warnings of unnecessary suffering were sufficient to ensure adequate funding. Smaller, rural departments have lived with fiscal restraint for years. Larger, metro departments are also experiencing funding cuts and we have already witnessed some of the impacts: fewer personnel, managing overtime, closing fire stations and reverting to composite departments from career.

The third ingredient in our effective response model – showing up promptly – implies arriving on scene with sufficient personnel to do the job. First, adequate members are needed in the organization; that speaks to recruitment and retention, a topic for another day. Do all the members on your department’s roster respond consistently, whenever they can? If not, how is that managed? There are some options; for example, creating a duty-crew rotation can alleviate the need for the entire membership to attend all types of calls.   

Fire-department leaders must look closely at their organizations and ask whether they are adequately trained, equipped and staffed for the types of emergencies to which they respond. If the answer isn’t a resounding yes, it’s time to identify weak areas with a view to making improvements. When improvements are not feasible, it may be time to examine the level of service provided by the department, including the types of emergencies to which the department responds, and the degree of response. For example, departments that do not have sufficient members trained for interior firefighting operations may adopt a defensive-operations-only stance. This position must be backed up by policy or bylaw.

I know that reducing service by limiting the types of calls to which we respond or how we respond to them just doesn’t seem right; that’s because when something is asked of us, we in the fire service typically respond positively because we’re problem solvers and we’re in this profession to help people.

Being realistic about our abilities and response limitations, and communicating them to our residents, isn’t wrong; on the contrary – it’s the best thing we can do for them and for our firefighters.

Dave Balding, a 29-year veteran of the fire service, is the fire chief and emergency co-ordinator for the Village of Fraser Lake in British Columbia’s Central Interior. Contact Dave at and follow him on Twitter at @FraserLakeFire

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