Straight Talk: May 2011
By Tim Beckett
As I sat on Family Day considering a topic for this column, my mind wandered to my father. My dad, Ken Beckett, the fire chief in East Gwillimbury, Ont. (a town about 60 kilometres north of Toronto), is being recognized for 50 years in the fire service.
By Tim Beckett
As I sat on Family Day considering a topic for this column, my mind wandered to my father. My dad, Ken Beckett, the fire chief in East Gwillimbury, Ont. (a town about 60 kilometres north of Toronto), is being recognized for 50 years in the fire service. Having been a volunteer firefighter and then the first full-time firefighter in Markham, Ont., Dad moved through the ranks and retired 35 years later as the fire chief. Retirement was short-lived, as he soon became the first fire chief for East Gwillimbury, helping to bring three independent fire stations under one administration. I am proud of my father’s accomplishments. He has been a great mentor in my life and my career. In 50 years, he has seen great change.
This leads me to the nature of my column: change – or, the need to change. We all know the phrase – 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress. Let’s look back: we have put the horses out to pasture and the petch coats and rubber boots on the shelves; firefighters wear self-contained breathing apparatuses and ride inside the trucks, not on the tailboards. We have seen plenty of change with respect to technology and equipment but we have failed to change our thinking. On the chance that I will upset many in the profession, I write this with the utmost respect to all the men and women who serve their communities.
“If you are not willing to accept change, then perhaps it is time for you to pack it in.” I heard this comment from a training officer when we were introducing the incident-command program. There was apprehension and many put up a fight. We continued, despite the challenges. Think about not having an incident-command system today because some were resistant to change; we would likely be in violation of labour-code safety legislation, and firefighter and public safety would be jeopardized. This change was embraced and today we don’t think twice about having an incident-management system.
So, why can’t we embrace regional fire services – fire services responding to public need regardless of boundaries and politics; regional departments that share resources to meet the demands of their communities, without duplication? How many hazmat teams, rescue boats or aerials are needed in a region, when the reality is that they are not often used? In Ontario in the early ’70s, the government created regions and counties. Police forces became the responsibility of regional governments. Towns lost their police departments despite opposition by labour, politicians and the public. Fast-forward 40 years and imagine individual police departments in each town. Change has proven to be for the better.
Regional fire services will eliminate duplication; they will strengthen service delivery and save money for municipalities. Fire prevention and public education will be standardized; training will be consistent; and fire stations can be properly positioned, and not hampered by boundaries.
A mentor of mine once said, “You can take control and create your own future, or you can wait and someone will create it for you.” The costs of emergency services continue to increase; if we don’t start to make changes, others will make these changes for us.
Fire and EMS departments continue to work in silos, both looking to improve response standards, both increasing staffing to meet demands, and both watching their budgets skyrocket. Why are we not looking at meshing the two services? I’m not advocating a fire-service takeover of EMS; this is about using all resources to ensure the best emergency service to the public. It’s about checking egos at the doors and ending the protection of empires. We, as leaders, owe it to our communities to protect taxpayers, yet we can barely enter into discussions on these issues because we can’t easily accept change.
Change is upon us: health and safety regulation changes; equipment changes; training changes; generational changes; and – one change that’s often overlooked – societal changes. Ask yourself if the fire department is appreciated and respected by the public. Your answer is probably yes. Now ask yourself if the public supports us. During economic downturns, citizens change or lose jobs and take pay cuts. Some find it hard to survive, yet emergency service budgets and wages continue to increase at a higher rate than others in the public sector. In the United States, firefighters are losing jobs and stations are closing. People are not balking at the station closings, the longer response times or the reduced services; they are accepting these changes as the new norm.
Change is important to be successful. The fire service has been successful but we need to make – or accept – greater change.
As my greatest mentor said, in his wisdom: “This isn’t the same fire service that your father started with. Accept and embrace change, and challenge those who resist it. It is upon us, and it is inevitable.”
Tim Beckett is the fire chief in Kitchener, Ont., and the
president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. Contact him at