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Feb. 8, 2013, Redwood Meadows, Alta. – In the first month of 2013, there were a number of fire deaths across the country; not a great start to the year.

February 8, 2013 
By Rob Evans

Feb. 8, 2013, Redwood Meadows, Alta. – In the first month of 2013, there were a number of fire deaths across the country; not a great start to the year.

Are people not getting our fire-safety and fire-prevention messages? What are those messages? Do you have a working smoke alarm? Do you change the batteries in your smoke alarms when you change your clocks in the spring and fall? Do you practice escape plans? Sprinklers should be included in new home construction. I know, that last one wasn’t a question. The answer to the first question seems to be a big NO when you look at January’s statistics.

It is time that we, as a fire service, start hitting home with our messages in a more direct way. Public-service announcements need to run year round and need to be made in a way that is going to wake up people and make them take notice: no more cartoons, no more Mr. Nice Guy – people die. Period. It seems to be acceptable to run commercials on television showing the results of distracted driving. It’s time to air hard-hitting commercials about the dangers of fires and the tragedies that happen when people aren’t prepared.

The Canadian fire service has to start taking a hard stand on all of this and speak with one voice, nationally. We have to stop talking as if just one less fire death is a success. It is not. Until there are absolutely no fire deaths, there will be no winners in this war.

After starting to write this, I realized I was going to be talking about death (fire fatalities because our fire-prevention messages aren’t getting through) and taxes (keep reading). Besides the number of fire fatalities in January, cost recovery billing from fire departments is a big news story this week.

From Beiseker, Alta., to Skugog, Ont., fire departments and municipalities have been questioned in the media for billing for their services. Last July, lightning struck a family’s historic village in Rocky View County, northeast of Calgary. Fire crews were delayed in responding because of another fire, an unpermitted controlled burn. By the time firefighters arrived, five buildings were on fire and priceless heirlooms had been destroyed – many that had been used in western films. Crews extinguished the fire and all was said and done, until this week when, to their surprise, the property owners were billed $25,000 by the county. After considerable public backlash, the reeve of Rocky View County waived the fees and said the property owners should never have received the bill in the first place. The county is now reviewing its cost-recovery bylaw.

As this story was unfolding in southern Alberta, OAFC President Kevin Foster was sitting in the Canada AM studio in Ontario talking about billing for the rescue of an ice fisherman on Lake Skugog on Jan. 13. Crews raced to rescue this visitor – the fisherman lives in the GTA but has fished on Lake Skugog all his life – and he received a bill for more than $5,000 for the response.

Apples to oranges, compared with the Alberta situation, many will say and I tend to agree. As Foster pointed out, the training, equipment and resources required for technical rescue has to be paid for, somehow. Normal, everyday fire fighting should be covered by municipalities through taxes. But should taxpayers be responsible for the significant costs of specialized rescues of outsiders who engage in high-risk activities? No.

Also this week, we heard about a person travelling along the Queen Elizabeth Way in Ontario being billed for a response generated when a passer-by called 911 to report an incident. As a 911 operator in Calgary I have taken thousands of these calls. The driver in this example had car trouble, had pulled over, called for a tow and waited. What he got was an ambulance, two fire trucks and a police car – not what he was expecting: the medics assessed for injuries, and fire crews set up scene safety/traffic management while the first fire crew checked for hazards and fluids. The police did what police do and investigated whether there was a collision. After determining that there was no collision, fire and EMS cleared the scene. Later, the driver got a bill from the Ministry of Transportation for the fire department’s response to the tune of $922. Why should the driver pay? He had car trouble and pulled over, that’s it. A good Samaritan was the one who called without making sure the driver was OK.

There is a lot to think about in all of these examples and I invite your comments. The better and bigger the conversation, the more beneficial for all of us fighting our own battles with billing for services. I guess there are really three absolutes in life: death, taxes and the conversation surrounding them.

Rob Evans is the chief fire officer for Redwood Meadows Emergency Services, 25 kilometres west of Calgary. Evans attended the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in 1989 and studied photojournalism. In 1992, he joined RMES after taking pictures of an interface fire and making prints for the department. He has his NFPA 1001 level II certification, NFPA 472 Operations and Awareness (hazmat), NFPA 1041 level I (fire service instructor), Dalhousie University Certificate in Fire Service Leadership and Certificate in Fire Service Administration and is a registered Emergency Medical Responder with the Alberta College of Paramedics. He lives in Redwood Meadows with his wife, a firefighter/EMT with RMES, and three children. Follow him on Twitter at @redwoodwoof.

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