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Straight Talk: November 2013

I firmly believe that there is no glory in putting out a fire that could have been prevented in the first place.

November 12, 2013 
By Kevin Foster

I firmly believe that there is no glory in putting out a fire that could have been prevented in the first place.

We hear plenty about suppression and rescue, but these activities focus on the situation once a fire has started – how best to control the fire or mitigate the damage that it may cause.

Smoke alarms and fire sprinklers are about early detection, warning and responding to the fire after it has started. We can do more to make those systems more effective: we can work hard to reduce the likelihood of a fire starting in the first place; we can be more proactive rather than being reactive.

To prevent something means to stop it from occurring, so I find the use of the phrase fire prevention to be incongruent, because obviously fire prevention should mean to stop a fire from happening, yet it is generally interpreted to mean code development and enforcement to provide – to the greatest level possible – occupant safety and to ensure structural performance after a fire has started.


The main focus of codes and standards is items such as automatic fire-sprinkler systems, fire-alarm systems, fire separations, and safety and evacuation plans, which, again, are protective measures that come into play after the fire starts. There are, however, some code components that actually address preventing a fire. For example, requirements for cleaning and maintenance of commercial cooking systems are intended to reduce the potential of a fire starting in the hood system due to the buildup of grease. The number of similar items, though, is relatively small.

A report correlating fire sprinklers and their financial impact to burn-injury heath-care costs was recently released in the United States, and a similar study for Canada started a little more than a year ago through Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. The Canadian study will also consider the value of fire sprinklers in residential occupancies from a health-care system perspective, and other impacts. Projects are also underway to establish a common data collection system that could be used in Canada to compile fire cause and related information. There is no need to wait for the results of the study to recognize that reducing burn injuries would lower some of the financial strain on Canada’s health-care system; the fire service can have an impact right now, and we need to start today to not only reduce these injuries but also strive to eliminate fire-related injuries and deaths. A comprehensive, effective fire-safety system must include safety codes and standards, the enforcement of those, and also fire suppression, and cannot rely solely on automatic fire sprinklers. Fires will continue to happen so we must continue to prepare for them.

To truly deliver on fire prevention, the fire service needs to expand its efforts to change the mindset and prevent the fire from starting in the first place. Many organizations and corporations say they have a safety culture in the workplace to eliminate work-related injuries. That concept must carry over into all aspects of everyday life, and fire safety should be a natural extension of that.

Unfortunately, not all communities have access to the same number of personnel resources or the financial capacity to deliver fire-safety education. That means that each fire department should assess and establish a plan based on the available resources in its particular community, which, in many situations, means only a Fire Prevention Week program. Those limitations do not preclude fire departments from working together with various partners to expand the penetration of fire-safety information into our communities and to build a stronger safety culture. To do this, first I would recommend determining which fire safety concerns you wish to address in your community, keeping in mind that this year’s Fire Prevention Week campaign is Prevent Kitchen Fires; after that, all that departments need to do is ask and, if asked, share.

Call on your neighbouring departments to see if there are opportunities to work co-operatively. Are there departments around you that have personnel and financial resources to provide a sustained, year-round effort to prevent fires? If you are one such department, or if you have a successful program or initiative, please share it.

Of course, there are also many resources available through the fire marshals’ and fire commissioners’ offices and your provincial fire chiefs/services associations. Again, all you need to do is ask.

Kevin Foster is in his 25th year in the fire service, having begun as a volunteer firefighter in East Gwillimbury in 1987. For 11 years, Foster was a firefighter with the Richmond Hill Fire Department and in June 1999 he became the first full-time fire chief of the North Kawartha Fire Department. Foster was appointed to his current position as the chief with the Midland Fire Department in November 2001 and is Midland’s community emergency management co-ordinator. Foster is a past president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. Contact him at and follow him on twitter at @midlanddfsem

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