Straight Talk: August 2011
By Tim Beckett
Tim Beckett had his eyes opened to the state of the Canadian fire service when he visited Newfoundland this summer. “From where I sit as a fire chief in an urban municipality, we take a lot for granted: adequate budgets, staffing, new equipment purchases, modern stations and training opportunities,” Beckett says in his Straight Talk column. “Things are much different outside of urban Canada.”
By Tim Beckett
As I wrote this column, I had just returned from a trip to Gander, N.L., where I attended the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services annual convention.
Newfoundland brought me down to a very relaxing reality, and the realization that, from where I sit as a fire chief in an urban municipality, we take a lot for granted: adequate budgets, staffing, new equipment purchases, modern stations and training opportunities. Things are much different outside of urban Canada. Many Newfoundland and Labrador chiefs and firefighters talked about older apparatuses and the need to explore community fundraising opportunities to buy new equipment, or to just operate existing equipment. Training is done in whatever fashion these departments can manage, and many do not receive a cent (a few receive a minimal honorarium for the work they do). This reminded me of a trip to FireCon, a training weekend in northern Ontario, where members of a volunteer fire department talked about the need to travel along the ditches of the Trans-Canada Highway picking up beer bottles and cans to raise enough money to fuel their vehicles. These are things that urban municipalities would never fathom.
What was unexpected, given the conditions in Newfoundland and Labrador, was the pride and dedication of these individuals. Very few were complaining about what they didn’t have. Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale felt it an honour to attend the annual convention to speak of the outstanding work that the fire service does for the province. She brought a cheque to assist with funding the association so it can continue its work to better the fire service. She reaffirmed her government’s commitment to put 22 new fire trucks in communities across the province. A representative from the Municipalities of Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) was also on hand and made a presentation about the potential for regionalization within the province.
So what is the point, you may ask? It was great to see the relationships and partnerships that have been established in order to accomplish a positive outcome for the public and for the fire service. The MNL was seeking a ground-up solution to regionalization, and to better understand the important role a fire department plays in a municipality. The provincial government looked at the importance of fire departments in its communities, and supported the needs financially. The president of the NLAFS, Fire Chief Vince MacKenzie from Grand Falls-Windsor, and his board, have worked hard to establish these relationships. The NLAFS has become a trusted advisor to government. It is easy to see that hard work, long hours, periods of disagreement and lots of talking has made this happen. Chief MacKenzie spoke to the membership: “We have asked a lot of government and they have delivered; we must now meet government halfway,” he said, speaking of the need to further examine and work with government on the regionalization issue.
Chief MacKenzie’s statement has stuck in my mind ever since the conference and it became the basis for my message in this column. The fire service needs to consider rethinking our priorities (the theme for the NLAFS convention). We need to go back to some basic fundamentals of the service and remember why we do what we do. We chose this profession to serve the public and to make our communities better. I recall sitting in my first hiring interview and the chief asked why I wanted to be a firefighter: “Because I want to serve the public, the community and make a difference,” I said. I have heard similar answers given during recruitments in which I have been involved. Think about your hiring interview. What was your answer?
When did money, perfect working conditions and the what-is-the-department-going-to-do-for-me attitude start to become the focus of the fire service? I understand that remuneration and working conditions are very important, but are they really the No. 1 priority in our profession? Looking around the country, I would say, not to everyone. Just ask those firefighters in Newfoundland and Labrador. We, in certain parts of the country, continue to ask and ask for more; many of us have great jobs and work in great departments. Rethinking our priorities means we need to give back to our communities, to ensure a sense of pride and commitment to the profession, to work within the means of the communities we represent, and to guarantee that our top priority is ensuring the fire and life safety of our residents. We need to start to make reasonable concessions with government when it supports the work we do.
Newfoundland and Labrador should be the envy of the country – not for its high-priced, well-equipped fire services, but for its dedicated men and women who serve, for the strong relationships among the fire services, for the government and the municipal associations, and for the deep commitment that everyone has for fire and life safety in their communities.
Now a shout out to my friends in Fogo: “Whadya at buys!”
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