Fire Fighting in Canada

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Straight Talk: February 2012

Time off over the Christmas break has allowed me to do some meaningful thinking.

February 14, 2012  By Tim Beckett

Time off over the Christmas break has allowed me to do some meaningful thinking. During the break, I was informed of two firefighter fatalities in Canada and another two in Massachusetts. All four very sad events got me thinking: why, how and what? Why do these things happen, how do we allow them to continue to take place and what are we doing to make sure they don’t happen again?

I’ve said in past columns that the delivery of emergency services cannot remain status quo. The funding and delivery model that we’re all used to simply won’t work in today’s economic or legal climates. While municipal budgets are being reduced, emergency-service delivery costs are escalating: this trend is not sustainable. Particularly in Ontario, pressures are being felt on many fronts, from the fire marshal’s office implementing guidelines that will increase costs for municipalities to the Ministry of Labour filing charges against municipalities and fire departments when things go wrong. I’m not advocating that a blind eye be turned; however, this kind of pressure is new to our industry and will have a dramatic impact on service delivery.

Today’s fire service needs to operate differently than yesterday’s service, and even more changes will be needed in the future. We have a very diverse fire service, with departments ranging in size from big cities with multiple stations to one-station, 15-annual-call departments in small-town Canada. Despite the diversity, standards are designed primarily using a one-size-fits-all model, and we know from experience that this approach doesn’t work.

Across the country, the number of fires continues to decline. This is great news and we need to continue to push the number closer to zero, but it’s also alarming, because frontline firefighters are no longer amassing as much firefighting experience as their predecessors. New and upcoming officers haven’t had the same experience as veterans; firefighters are not seeing the same amount of action. This increases the need for more hands-on training that requires time and repetition. This is a problem in the volunteer service, because time is not always readily available. Yet, in the eyes of the public and of health and safety regulators, volunteer and career firefighters are expected to perform the same and meet the same standards. Further, the cost of this needed hands-on training can be very expensive.


So, how do these unnecessary deaths happen? We continue to perform traditional methods of fire fighting. We need to take advantage of today’s technology. This includes reducing the risks to citizens and firefighters by using fire-protection devices such as automatic sprinklers and looking at new firefighting techniques, such as the extinguisher grenade, to knock down fires before entering structures.

The fire service continues to work in budget-restricted environments and aims to provide the same level of service without the same resources. This means something has to give. Don’t let it be firefighter safety. Cutting training budgets means less experience; cutting staff means reviewing your delivery options. You can’t have both the budget reductions and the same level of service delivery.

What are we doing to prevent? Obviously not enough, as little has changed.  Change is everyone’s responsibility, including provincial and municipal governments, management, front-line officers, firefighters and labour associations. All must step up and ensure that they are contributing. Provincial governments continue to put forward health-and-safety stipulations and regulations around fire-protection and prevention, and continue to increase the expectations and download costs to municipalities, at the same time cutting their own budgets and not providing the level of support they should. Funding for policing and emergency-medical services continues to be shared with higher levels of government. It is time for these upper-tier governments to step up and share the funding responsibility for fire protection.

Municipal governments must understand their responsibilities and ensure they are well educated when deciding to make changes in their resourcing of services. Municipal officials must understand due diligence, liability and all the risks associated with change. Managers, it is your responsibility to educate and provide the necessary options to council and senior officials; don’t be afraid to inform them of the liability risks. If you don’t do this, then you are accepting the responsibility when you likely shouldn’t be.

Restructuring options need to be reviewed so that service delivery is explored. This may mean realignment of governance and regionalization to meet the community’s needs and circumstances.
For the company officers and firefighters: embrace change because it needs to (and will) happen. If you don’t, you have little opportunity to shape that change. Invest in training whenever you can. Show the initiative to make sure you are on top of your game.

Let’s make 2012 the year of positive change in the fire service.

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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