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Straight talk

Q. Tell us about the challenges and successes of the last year.

A. I think we’ve certainly made a number of inroads in Ottawa over the last year. Of course we had a dark period when we had some financial issues in the early part of the new millennium; we’re working very diligently to get out of that and we’re actually becoming a more financially sustainable organization.

September 14, 2009 
By Laura King

Editor’s note: Calgary Fire Chief and
Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs president Bruce Burrell attended
several provincial fire chiefs’ association conferences this year to
spread awareness of the Canadian association and its mandate. We caught
up with Chief Burrell at the Maritime Association of Fire Chiefs
conference in Nova Scotia in July and sat down for a question and
answer session in advance of the CAFC’s conference  in Winnipeg this

Tell us about the challenges and successes of the last year.

A. I think we’ve certainly made a number of inroads in Ottawa over the last year. Of course we had a dark period when we had some financial issues in the early part of the new millennium; we’re working very diligently to get out of that and we’re actually becoming a more financially sustainable organization. We’re doing a lot of work with sponsorships, which we hadn’t done in the past, so that’s been one of the big things that has been going on.

Photo by Laura King


We’ve certainly upped our presence significantly in Ottawa. We used to just do our annual legislative affairs day once a year but we actually have made a point over the last number of months to be there at least every two to three months and have ongoing meetings with senior bureaucrats and elected officials. In particular, we’ve had some pretty good discussions with the minister of public safety and we have significant interest from the finance department about tax relief for volunteer firefighters.


We have ongoing discussions with DRDC [Defence Research & Development Canada] about the CRTI [CBRNE Research & Technology Initiative Project] program and the Canadian police research centre and the programs that are being  offered there that are applicable to the fire service so I think we’ve upped things a bit.

As an organization we’re looking at a lot of different issues. We hope that at the conference in September we’ll be bringing forth some resolutions which will look at a new type of membership structure for the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. Our organization right now is predominantly chiefs and deputy chiefs. The leadership framework that we’ve been spending a lot of money in the last four or five years developing is targeted for future chief officers. So we’re building this leadership initiative and speaking on it at a conference to a group who are already leaders and it’s time to move beyond that – we need to start looking at what the next generation of fire chiefs and deputy chiefs is going to look like and we need to start engaging them in our educational sessions, bringing them in at the company officer rank, getting them involved in the association early and providing the educational development to them to make good chief officers in the future so that we don’t get into the challenges that we have in a number of municipalities now, which is where is the next fire chief going to come from?

Q. What is the strategic leadership program and how is it being launched across the country?

A. It consists of a number of different modules that are geared specifically to the jurisdiction or to the group so that it can be targeted – everybody doesn’t have to do every module. Through a number of survey instruments and a significant amount of research and analysis that has been done, the program looks at the competencies and leadership profiles required to be a successful fire chief in Canada. Through the leadership capabilities and the competency profile you can determine gaps; once you determine gaps a program is designed to deliver the education to help fill those gaps and make people successful in those programs in the future.

We’re going to do the first launch of the framework and the tools at the conference this year. We have a couple of cities that are interested in working with the consultant that we’re using and we’re going to do a couple of pilots in a couple of keen municipalities over the next year as well.

In addition, we want to develop a peer instructor bank so that the people who are going to talk about what it takes to be an effective fire chief are going to be fire chiefs or deputy chiefs who can bring some personal experience to the table and talk about some of the leadership challenges that they faced when they first stepped into those roles and how maybe they didn’t have all the skills that they thought they should have to do the job.

The competency piece is huge. Our competency survey was based on more than 1,000 responses from across Canada where we actually looked at all the competencies for the chief level but then, further to that, as this developed we also compared the competencies in the leadership framework to the competencies possessed by station officers and then the competencies possessed by mid-level manager like district chiefs and battalion chiefs. So it’s been an extensive process and a long process but we really think what we’ve developed at the end of the day is a stellar tool to help the Canadian fire service move forward.

We’re coming up to the CAFC conference in September. What are the challenges for your second term?

A. The challenges for the second term are political involvement – we know the money’s tight and we understand that but the JEP funding in Canada works out to be about 13.2 cents per head/population in Canada on a 50-cent dollar so the federal government is sending a message to the emergency service providers in Canada that public protection is worth 26 cents per head. So there are messages like that that we’re going to continue to harp on and drive home in Canada.

We’re working closely with a number of other organizations like the fire marshals and the Canadian Fallen Fire Fighters Association; we met this morning with one of the representatives of the CFFF and we want to do more with that partnership and are going to put more pressure on Heritage Canada about the monument site in Ottawa when we return to Ottawa in October.

I think the biggest thing we’ll try to bring into the term for the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs is that we’re encouraging all of our executive members to serve two years in each portfolio. We’re trying to build it as a succession-based model so that if you’re the second vice president you move up to first vice president then you move up to president,  by the time you leave as the past president you’ve actually given eight years to the association and then there’s continuity and sustainability around the organization and all the people on the executive have a very clear idea – when we do our executive meetings and our planning we set out strategies  for the future and despite the fact that I’ll be gone a year from September, as the past president my role will diminish significantly but I’ll still be involved in the strategic work with the new people that have come in behind us and I’ll be talking about why that framework is important to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and on the delivery of national issues.

Q. The CAFC has been lobbying for an office of a national fire advisor. There is some opposition to this. Where do things stand?

A. Maybe the title’s the problem more than anything else. I don’t believe when you talk to anybody in Canada you will find that people will say that there shouldn’t be somebody in Ottawa representing the fire service on national issues. We are trying to find somebody, or find a mechanism through which there will be somebody within Ottawa on a permanent basis, within a government department, who is a go-to person for federal departments when it comes to fire service issues that are national in scale.

We don’t want to dabble in provincial association issues and we don’t want to get into dealing with provincial issues between provincial or territorial governments.

We also represent industry, we represent First Nations, we represent airport firefighters, we represent Department of National Defence firefighters, so the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs is actually the encompassing organization that can speak clearly on behalf of the Canadian fire service and we believe that there’s a need for somebody in Ottawa representing the fire service at a federal level for federal issues so that if the government wants information or input for research or is talking about developing new funding programs – whatever it may be – that they actually have a contact person that can tap into the resources that they need across Canada.

We’re trying to do a lot of that as an association but we don’t always get touched by the government department so we find out about initiatives after they’re off the ground and the fire service hasn’t been consulted, so really that office is a pro-active measure for the national fire service.

We still have mixed messages and we hit resistance sometimes when we bring it up in Ottawa but I think at the end of the day everybody sees the need clearly for the office – there’s a lot of angst between the provincial and territorial levels and the federal level because their perception is that it’s the firefighters trying to gain control at a federal level but that’s not what it’s about at all. I met with the fire marshals and the fire commissioners about 10 months ago and I said, to me this is a communications issue – it’s about training and understanding. Obviously their perception of what it is and our perception as the organization that’s trying to move it forward are two different things and the interesting thing is that they’re actually a supporter of it because they passed a motion two years ago supporting it, now they’re saying they don’t really want it . . . there’s been a number of changes with the players in both associations.

So, we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of re-education to do on that particular function and I’m not sure that at the end of the day we’re going to be calling it the national fire adviser but the reality is that for the Canadian fire service it’s critical that we have a voice in Ottawa.

The CAFC is reaching out to the provincial associations and making an effort to be seen at provincial association meetings. Have the provincial associations embraced the CAFC and its mandate?

A. Things have improved over time and one of the things we’re interested in doing is going out and engaging more at a provincial level with the provincial associations. We’re an association that’s member based and we have tried to encourage all of the provincial associations to make sure that their members are members of the CAFC because when we are talking about things like tax relief for volunteer firefighters – volunteer firefighters represent 80 per cent of the firefighters in Canada – that’s a national issue being talked about on a national level by the CAFC on behalf of firefighters across Canada. We need the backing of all the provincial associations and their memberships when we do these national programs on national issues so it’s really quite critical for us to get out and touch base.

We targeted six this year, either regional or industrial conferences, and I believe we got to seven. We’re going to target six again next year and it’s a very clear direction from the executive of the CAFC and there’s unanimous support for the fact that we get back out and start to re-engage. When the organization was recovering financially we didn’t have the spendabilty. We do now and we’re quite happy to be back and re-engaging the way we should be.

Q. Are there any other messages you’d like to get out to Canadian fire departments?

A. One of the big things we’re doing is a lot more survey work and we’re actually asking the fire departments for more information than we ever have in the past. That information is incredibly useful and that’s what the government is looking for. When we go forward and we say something’s an issue they want us to be able to show them why or how it’s an issue on a national basis.

We sent out almost 5,000 surveys on the volunteer fire service issue and we only had a return rate of about 800. If we want to be taken seriously at the federal level of government we have to get a significant return rate on our surveys. We need to be able to go to the federal government and say 60 per cent of fire departments responded so we need 3,000 or 3,500. We need to be able to give them good, solid data that they’re going to look and say, you know what, this is a national issue, this is a recurrent issue across every province, every territory in Canada and affects all aspects of the fire service and it’s not a provincial issue. If we’re not getting those kinds of return rates  . . . 

I would just encourage everyone, if the CAFC sends out a request for information, the more information we can receive the better off the Canadian fire service is going to be.

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