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Straight Talk: February 2011

It’s a new year, with new budgets and new challenges. And this year, we need to focus on changes, new ideas and new concepts for the fire service and the public we protect.

February 8, 2011
By Tim Beckett

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It’s a new year, with new budgets and new challenges. And this year, we need to focus on changes, new ideas and new concepts for the fire service and the public we protect.

Many fire departments worry about getting the numbers of emergency incidents up to justify their existence. OK, maybe that’s overstating things a bit, but there is concern about justifying staffing requirements and larger budgets. What if the numbers decline? What if the numbers plateau? And what if we lived in a perfect world and had no fires? To that, I would say we have done our jobs and done them well.

In many ways, fire prevention has taken a back seat. I recall listening to fire chiefs and firefighters who were of the opinion that fire prevention would put us out of business. Further, they said, fire prevention is the area in which we accommodate firefighters who are hurt and injured. Sound archaic? Sure it does, but the problem is that there are still some people in our business who have that mindset.

The days of the fire service just showing up and fighting fires are over. We have bolstered our public education programs; we have tried to ensure that there are smoke detectors in all homes. Anyone in Canada who doesn’t know that smoke detectors are required in homes has likely been totally isolated from society. Regardless, many homes do not have working smoke detectors and far too many people die in fires – deaths that should never occur.

As fire-service professionals, we need to step up and ensure that we are enforcing the fire codes. We need to use deterrent tools such as tickets, fines and compliance orders in the same way that police enforce seatbelts and speed limits. This would mean that everyone in the fire service – from the probationary firefighter to the fire chief, and all in between – needs to be vigilant and enforce the rules.

For many in the fire service, code enforcement is not popular; most of us are more comfortable being the good guys, showing up when someone is in trouble and trying to make things better. Looking back, perhaps if we had been more vigilant about code enforcement in the past, there would have been fewer fire fatalities and we wouldn’t have had to show up at all; in other words, something bad may never have happened, and people may not have died. If issuing a ticket or a compliance order results in a properly installed smoke alarm, which allows people to escape a fire without injuries or death, then that makes you a good guy in my eyes.

As the fire service continues to advocate for more tools to increase public safety, such as automatic sprinklers in care facilities (I still believe this is one of the most effective tools to increase safety for firefighters and residents of these homes), governments have told us to start using what we already have: enforcement tools.

As fire-service professionals and leaders, we need to stop taking responsibility and assuming liability for people who fail to take the necessary steps to meet fire code requirements. We continue to install smoke alarms in residences that don’t have them, still wanting to be the good guys. Instead, people who violate these laws need to be ticketed (although we must still provide protection by installing a smoke alarm before we leave). We continue to approve fire-safety plans for buildings such as care facilities and seniors homes that may not stand up if challenged by a fire, and we refuse to close operations or buildings that are unsafe because of what people may think. By failing to take action, we accept some of the liability and responsibility.

Care facilities require fire-safety plans that identify safety measures for their staff and residents. In Ontario, fire chiefs, or their designates, have reviewed and approved many of these plans, yet many of these facilities likely do not have appropriate plans or appropriate staff on hand to properly evacuate people from the building. How many chiefs out there have signed off on a fire-safety plan without considering the responsibility that goes with it? Is there sufficient staff to evacuate, and, if so, can the evacuation be completed in a reasonable amount of time? If the answer is no and you have signed off on the fire-safety plan, you are accepting the responsibility and some of the liability for the municipality, and, perhaps, personally. The fire service cannot continue to accept this responsibility.
 
The fire service needs to focus on fire prevention and enforcement. We need to start putting resources towards these services and ensuring that they are the core of our business. We need to consider using fire-suppression staff in fire-prevention activities. Company officers need to become more active with code enforcement and issue tickets and orders for violations. We need to start doing our jobs differently to meet our mandate of protecting the public.


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.


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