Straight Talk: November 2010
By Tim Beckett
Many voices, one message
Is the Canadian fire service so fragmented that it is unable to make the changes it needs? As Tim Beckett notes in his Straight Talk column, a more co-ordinated effort is needed to send a unified message to all levels of government.
By Tim Beckett
Is the Canadian fire service so fragmented that we are unable to make the changes we need? The consensus seems to be yes, the fire service is divided, with multiple stakeholders singing from different and sometimes conflicting song sheets.
Many in the Canadian fire service say we need one voice, when, in fact, we need the several voices we have. What we really need is a more co-ordinated effort to advocate our issues to all levels of government: several voices but one song sheet.
Years ago, our neighbours to the south secured federal funding for the American fire service through a white paper titled “America’s Burning.” The paper made it clear that there was a national problem with public safety – a problem that couldn’t be fixed locally. The identification of public safety as a national issue brought federal government involvement to the forefront. This resulted in the establishment of the U.S. Fire Administration to co-ordinate fire efforts across the country, the introduction of fire service grants to bolster resources, and assurance that needs and issues that were identified would be resolved.
Since then, the Congressional Fire Committee has been established with joint chairs from both federal parties and a large contingent of members of Congress who sit as one to oversee the committee.
As well, the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) was established in 1989 as a non-profit, non-partisan policy institute that includes all key fire-service stakeholders. CFSI’s mandate is to educate members of Congress about the needs and challenges of America’s fire and emergency services, enabling the federal government to provide the types of training and funding required by first responders. It publishes white papers for Congress in which it shares the consensus of the fire service on federal fire programs and legislation. Membership in this group includes but is not limited to the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters, manufacturers and suppliers, fire sprinkler associations and fire-service publications. I had an opportunity to sit as a guest at one of its board meetings in Washington. At this meeting, stakeholders came together to discuss common issues and plans were established to move forward with their advocacy.
Back home, there is no Canadian fire-service administration. We have limited access to grant money and there is limited co-ordination with regard to fire safety, interoperability and national statistics.
Several stakeholders have their own positions and are pressing government for action but many of these fire-service groups are fragmented from each other. When fire-service representatives speak with politicians, the politicians are often confused about whom we represent and often mistake the issues presented. This is because we are singing from a different song sheet. If we bring all stakeholders to one table with a similar vision, things can change.
The question, then, becomes, Is Canada burning? Probably not to the same extent as America was but we don’t know the scope of the problem because limited national statistics prohibit us from painting an accurate picture. Recent data collected by the Canadian Government Affairs Committee of FEMSA for Ontario indicate that there is about $414 million in direct property loss as a result of roughly 28,600 fires annually. Sixty-eight per cent of personal protective equipment is older than 10 years and roughly 42 per cent of all fire trucks are at least 15 years old, with one in six being more than 20 years old. Annually, fire deaths average around 100 and civilian injuries average 862. What would this look like compounded across the country? Unfortunately, the only national statistics available were produced in 2002 by the provincial fire marshals and fire commissioners.
The following is an excerpt from “America’s Burning,” outlining the striking aspect of the U.S. fire problem:
“Destructive fire takes a huge toll in lives, injuries and property losses, yet there is no need to accept those losses with resignation. There are many measures – often very simple precautions – that can be taken to reduce those losses significantly.”
There is a strong need for the Canadian fire service to have a common and consistent voice with government. Our public safety concerns are a national issue. There is a need for a co-ordinated effort, through which groups and individuals check their egos at the door and tackle the issues as a whole. Stakeholders must come together, use synergies and collaborate to move the issues forward.
We need to examine federal funding for equipment and programming, interoperability issues, deployment of tactical teams – both federally and internationally – public education and fire prevention initiatives.
Several voices singing from one song sheet will make the fire service stronger and ensure continued public safety. It’s time to show leadership; it’s time to come together.
Tim Beckett is the fire chief in Kitchener, Ont., and the president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. Contact him at Tim.Beckett@Kitchener.ca