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Straight Talk: November 2011

I am writing this at the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs conference in Calgary, where former Toronto Argonauts coach Mike “Pinball” Clemons has just finished talking about playing the game and playing it for the team

November 14, 2011 
By Tim Beckett

I am writing this at the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs conference in Calgary, where former Toronto Argonauts coach Mike “Pinball” Clemons has just finished talking about playing the game and playing it for the team. He spoke of Damon Allen’s words to the Argos just prior to the 2004 Grey Cup game against the B.C. Lions: Allen went around the room and told individual players that he plays the game for them. The meaning behind this is that a team isn’t about you, rather it’s about the members of your team. Move this analogy to the emergency-service field: we play for each other and, more importantly, we play for the communities we serve.

In Ontario, there’s a battle heating up between the firefighter and paramedic unions over who does what best. In Toronto, there have been heated exchanges through social media in the argument over which service should respond to which types of calls.

Although I love to see people and organizations with passion for what they do – and both sides definitely have passion – I become concerned when the passion clouds the picture. Both unions claim to represent the professionals who care about the public and reason that, therefore, their members should be the ones in attendance at medical calls.

The unions are publicly airing their laundry, which appears to be self-serving. Frankly, I don’t think the public cares who gets to a call first, or at all. People just want qualified personnel to assist them with their needs, and they want them there quickly. Both sides state that they are professionals, and there is no doubt that both are good at what they do. 


But back to Pinball’s message. The passion of the firefighter and paramedic organizations is distorting the messages. Both groups are so focused on their own roles and needs that they are not looking at what the public really needs and what the organizations need.

This is a time when fire and EMS need to be working together more than ever, and, as I have said in past columns, both need to check their egos at the door and do what is right for the patient. This public bickering appears to be about protecting empires; this protectionist approach will only create separation and animosity and, perhaps, result in a decline in customer service.

So what’s the answer? This is a provincial issue in Ontario but it is likely to spread to other parts of the country.

Organizations need to come together and look at who is doing what, how organizations can make a difference, and what this will cost taxpayers. Some will claim that you can’t put a cost on public safety, but in reality, we do, because there is not an endless amount of money. If we had endless cash flow we would have fire and paramedic stations on every corner.

We will always need paramedics and we will always need firefighters. History has shown that firefighters were used to help improve medical responses to emergencies. The EMS sector has done a great job improving its responses and skill set, and is a well-trained medical profession.

History also shows that response times continue to increase, not because of the medics but because of the system – offloading delays, dispatching controls and ministry guidelines. Fire response is declining due to stronger code enforcement and fire-prevention activities. And, finally, history also shows that the costs to fund these services are high and continue to grow, and within the current economical climate, are unsustainable.

Both organizations want to do what is best for citizens and patients, but airing their frustrations in public doesn’t show that. The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and the Association of Municipal Emergency Medical Services of Ontario have taken on the task of looking at the system to determine the roles of both professions, and the importance of both organizations within the system. We want to ensure that the public is the main focus – the main focus in response, the main focus in service delivery and the main focus in fiscal responsibility. We want to ensure that everyone is looking at things from a factual and evidence-based approach. And we want to ensure that we are working as a team, not as individuals. We have checked our egos at the door in order to serve the public and the professions.

I challenge you to look at the way you work and to remember who you are doing this for. Firefighters have a role to play in medical calls; paramedics have a higher skill set. The focus needs to be on how we can work together to better service the public. Doing the right thing is not always the popular thing.

Tim Beckett is the fire chief in Kitchener, Ont., and the president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. Contact him at

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