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The case for national numbers

What do Australia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States have that Canada does not?

June 2, 2014 
By Len Garis

What do Australia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States have that Canada does not? The answer: a national fire-incidents database. While Canadians can easily gain a national perspective on policing and court data, getting a national overview of fire incidents is difficult. Comparing crime rates in Halifax, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver is a simple matter of visiting the Statistics Canada website. Comparing fire incidents from those same four cities involves approaching four different provincial jurisdictions. Furthermore, while much of the data collected by those provinces is comparable, much is not.

no data-collection system  
Canada has no data-collection system for fire incidents. photos by larry thorne


Why should we be concerned with collecting national statistics? After all, we gather information on fire incidents at the local and provincial levels. There are many reasons, but here is a short list:

  • Some regions are too small to provide within-region comparisons. For example, a province may have just one or two big cities, making it difficult to show trends. First Nations communities, with an average population of fewer than 400 people, are also examples of areas in which relatively few incidents occur although the rate per community is quite high.
  • Certain types of incendiary incidents or fatalities may be rare events in some areas. By aggregating to produce larger numbers for analysis, it may be possible to identify causal factors and other patterns.
  • National data can provide a comparison group for assessing the impact of policies, standards or programs that might be carried out in a particular jurisdiction but not in another.
  • National data can provide the potential to track emerging patterns that may appear random or unique at a local level, but are systematic at a higher level of analysis. The relationship between certain types of incidents and occupational diseases, such as cancer, is an example.
  • The potential to reduce costs exists, particularly in smaller jurisdictions, by reducing hardware and software duplication. Further savings might also be found by providing common training and support facilities.
  • It is possible to link existing or expanded incident data with other data sets. Linking incident data with geographic and census data may better enable us to track patterns by the social and geographical characteristics of a neighbourhood. This could be done locally, but often, the expertise does not exist. Also, having it done once is more cost-effective.

Convinced of the potential value of a national database, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) presented a proposal to Public Works and Government Services Canada in December 2010 to examine the possibility of creating and maintaining a national fire-incident database. In its proposal, the CAFC suggested that it was important to identify “the ability to gather and analyze fire-incident statistics on a national basis as an important tool for optimizing effective delivery of fire services; particularly, to substantiate improvement in policy, preventive measures and operational response methodologies.” That proposal was funded and the outcome was a report that outlined how a national fire-incident database could be put together.


The Context
One difference in the organization of fire response data in Canada from many other countries is that it is highly decentralized. Canadian fire services are generally the responsibility of local government.

From the perspective of a local department, the collection of information relating to fire and other incidents is usually necessary to provide a measure of accountability to the local municipality. It is because of the role and mandate of provincial fire marshals’ and fire commissioners’ offices that local departments are asked to submit reports of incendiary incidents to a provincial- or territorial-level agency. These reports aid the fire marshals’/commissioners’ offices in their responsibilities for fire code enforcement and for investigating the origin and cause of fires. Thus, across Canada, each marshal or commissioner maintains a record of local departments’ fire-related activities. This decentralization of record keeping is both a challenge and an opportunity for national recording.

To identify the challenges and possibilities involved in creating a national database, we conducted a detailed examination of how incendiary statistics are collected and processed across Canada. We examined the existing documentation and interviewed people involved in the process across Canada. We also looked at other locations, such as the United States, that have similar jurisdictional challenges to Canada’s. This process gave us a basic understanding of what information was available elsewhere, how it is processed and maintained, and revealed some possibilities for routinely aggregating the information nationally.

We discovered in this process that many nations have centralized systems supported by the central government. We also found that generating national databases in confederated nations where states or provinces have the primary responsibility for collecting fire-incident information is possible, although more challenging. In most places we examined, we found that those national databases not only provided data to support higher-level policy initiatives but also helped local departments and brigades with their strategic planning. In some situations, academics, fire researchers, insurance companies and others use these national databases to enhance their fundamental understanding of fire incidents.

Tracking incidents  
Tracking incidents and patterns can help to establish best practices and help fire-service leaders better understand training needs.


So, where do we go from here? Ultimately, whether Canada can generate and sustain a national database is up to the provinces and other jurisdictions already involved in collecting fire-incident information. Anything involving national collaboration tends to be fraught with challenges, but our interviews suggested that the value is recognized at the local level. We also sensed a great deal of goodwill to make something happen. The challenges seemed to fall into three categories. First, who will collect the data, store and manage it? Second, governance: who will oversee the initiative and provide strategic direction for the project? Third, who will provide the financial resources to support the project?

On the first issue, we looked at different models for setting up a co-ordinating body, from creating a new, non-profit organization to using an existing agency. In the end, we suggested that from the perspective of cost and existing expertise, we might look to Statistics Canada. StatsCan showed a willingness to fulfil the role if adequate financial support could be found; it already has the experience and capacity to handle complex data sets and to manage the subtleties involved in dealing with different jurisdictional needs, and it operates bilingually.

For governance, we suggested the creation of a national fire-incident statistics committee to provide direction and oversight for the collection, analysis and distribution of the data. The committee would hold its mandate as a subcommittee of the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners in collaboration with the CAFC. In its oversight capacity, the committee would work to ensure that accurate, timely and strategic data are made available to operational firefighting agencies, government, and the public. The national fire statistics terms of reference were approved in September. 

Funding remains the biggest challenge. Estimates from Statistics Canada suggest that creating and maintaining the national database, along with generating a series of appropriate reports, would cost about $250,000 a year. While we have identified several potential sources of one-time funding, the challenge is to find ongoing, sustainable support. As we have seen in other jurisdictions, however, various workable funding models exist.

The national fire-incident statistics committee has been struck and its first order of business is to pursue the options that are available. There is confidence that the value of national level statistics is seen as beneficial. With due diligence, a little goodwill and lot of effort, this project will succeed.

Len Garis is the fire chief for the City of Surrey, B.C., Contact him at

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