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April 1, 2013
By Rob Evans

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April 1, 2013, Redwood Meadows, Alta. – My last blog was a preview of the Canadian Association of Fire Chief’s (CAFC) government relations week. It was a busy week of meetings with MPs and government officials, not to mention lots of time spent with other Canadian fire chiefs discussing issues important to the Canadian fire service.

April 1, 2013, Redwood Meadows, Alta. – My last blog was a preview of the Canadian Association of Fire Chief’s (CAFC) government relations week. It was a busy week of meetings with MPs and government officials, not to mention lots of time spent with other Canadian fire chiefs discussing issues important to the Canadian fire service.

It was a very busy week’s worth of business jammed into just three days. I had been to the two previous government relations weeks so I knew what to expect. I was even bold enough to challenge Laura King to a blog-off in my last Size-up but it was edited out of the text. Good thing, because I did not write once. I felt bad about that, but this year, the week in Ottawa had me hopping. And as Laura can attest, the week following, I had one monster of a cough and cold to contend with; man-cold, I believe was the type.

Half way through the Easter weekend, I am back, driven to the keyboard by tragic events that have again made headlines in Ontario and across the country. The death of four family members in a house fire in East Gwillimbury, north of Toronto, has shaken that community to its core. Jennifer Dunsmuir, 51, along with husband, Kevin, 55, and sons Robert, 19 and Cameron, 16, were found in a second-floor bedroom. The fire is still under investigation.

Now, the East Gwillimbury chief has said in a Toronto Star interview that if his department did not have to rely on volunteers, the response time would have been better than the 12 minutes it took to arrive at this horrific scene. I know how news stories are put together and although the chief’s thoughts may seem harsh to volunteers, he is also noted as saying it would be pure speculation to say that career firefighters would have changed the outcome. He also points out that his volunteer, paid on-call firefighters are trained to professional standards.

Because I was not near the media scrum or sitting with the chief when he was interviewed, it would not be fair to speculate on how the interview transpired. Without context, these comments from the chief would appear to be a slap in the face to volunteers. His statement about the response time is, however, a reality when you are talking about firefighters who have to race to the fire station and then jump on the trucks to respond.

This is a good chance, however, to give some of our smaller department chiefs a quick Media 101 crash course. It has to be pointed out that reporters will take your quotes and edit them together to make their story jump. Stories this big will generate interest from larger media outlets. Reporters from big city daily newspapers and television stations have tight deadlines and need answers quickly. They are not being malicious, that is the first thing you have to understand. They have a job that needs to get done and usually very quickly in today’s social media atmosphere. Being afraid to talk to the media and ignoring them will certainly not go in your favour. Like it or not, a fire like this is already being shared on Facebook or Twitter while you are responding. A fire of this magnitude will take up a lot of your time, but be sure to slot media time in the schedule. Be prepared about the topic on which you are talking and do not speculate at all. If you do not know an answer to a question, say so and get the answer quickly.

Dealing with big-city media can be very intimidating, especially during such a tragic event for a community. You need to remember that how you react and the impression that you give in the media can help lift not only your fire crews, but also your community when they need it the most. Hold your head high and be proud of your crews and neighbours.

The cause of the fire and whether or not smoke alarms were working in the residence has not been released, but this brings me back to the efforts of the CAFC in Ottawa. One of the major talking points to MPs and others has been introducing sprinklers in single-family residential structures. Since the chiefs left the nation’s capital, we have seen almost 10 fatal fires across the country. This has to stop. This is where we can be constantly reminding our local media outlets about the importance of smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors and sprinkler use. The only way we are going to stop the myths and reduce people’s fears about these tools is to go out and educate the public. We need to start doing this consistently and we need to be united in the message we deliver. And if you cannot make it to Ottawa during government relations week, certainly you can make a phone call and ask to speak to your local MP when the House is not sitting. We can make a difference.

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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