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The status of federal support

What has, or hasn’t, changed in the Canadian fire service since Sept. 11, 2001?

September 7, 2011
By Brad Bigrigg

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For about three years prior to Sept. 11, 2011, FEMA had been delivering emergency-response-to-terrorism training for first responders throughout the United States. I was fortunate to be a member of a 50-person Canadian class that attended this training at the New Hampshire Fire Academy in 1998. What an eye-opener that was: from the moment we entered the training academy, it was clear that the state and federal governments in the United States had not only completed a valid, timely and accurate threat assessment, but had also acted quickly to close the gaps by providing the plans, organization, training, resources and funding required.

Shortly after completing this training, there were a number of attacks on U.S. assets in Africa. These attacks validated the threat assessment completed by the U.S. government and should have served as a wake-up call for other western democracies, including Canada.

Typically, the Canadian response was to do nothing or move slower than the speed of government, hope that the issue would go away, and count on the government of the United States to help us if we were involved in a serious event that we couldn’t handle.

Many of the Canadians attending the course in New Hampshire came back to our home organizations with simple and timely training and information designed to ensure the safety of first responders and the civil population during a terrorism-related event. 

Simple plans were drawn up to offer similar training to first responders in several provinces. True to bureaucratic form, many of us who attended the training (some on our own time/expense) were criticized by senior members of our organizations for even attending this nonsense exercise.

Between the fall of 1998 and the summer of 2001, there were a number of overseas attacks on western assets. Little regard was paid to these events and, individually, they were viewed by most as blips on the screen. Few people envisioned a Sept. 11, 2001-type of attack in the western world.

So what has changed since Sept. 11, 2001? In many cases there have been lots of changes and in other cases there have been virtually none. In Ontario, it took more than a year to announce major initiatives arising out of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. As can be expected, the bulk of the funding went to policing services, even though the fire service’s primary concern is consequence management, which is not a role or responsibility for police services. The leftover funding, which, in my view, was insignificant, was used by the Office of the Fire Marshal to hire a few additional staff, develop a limited emergency-response support capability, install additional training props at the Ontario Fire College, and create one Internet-based self-study package on hazmat/CBRNE awareness for first responders.

This self-study training was well received – not only by the fire service, but also by members of the broader first-response community. It has been periodically updated and is still the fundamental hazmat/CBRNE training building block in Ontario today. Unfortunately, none of the other self-study training initiatives envisioned for the fire service following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, was ever developed.

Additional funds were made available to Emergency Management Ontario (EMO) to upgrade the Provincial Operations Centre, add field officers and enhance EMO’s planning and training capability. As this article was being prepared, the dividends of this investment were being paid as EMO was co-ordinating the evacuation of 3,500 members of First Nations communities to areas of refuge during a severe forest fire in northwestern Ontario. 

EMO was also tasked to develop and implement a provincial Incident Management System (IMS). This project started and stalled for more than two years but finally has some traction. Unfortunately, the original terms of reference were changed, and it will be some time before all first responders in Ontario are working within the same IMS during large-scale or complex events.  

EMO was provided funding to acquire a large mobile command post as a province-wide emergency-management resource in support of communities during an emergency. That lasted for about a year. The vehicle has been turned over to the Ontario Provincial Police as part of its fleet of several other large police command posts.  

Some significant funding was also directed to the health and public health sectors to develop improved decon, triage and on-site medical response capabilities during hazmat and CBRNE events. Unfortunately, there was little or no funding to train staff in these functions. 

In some cases, little or nothing has been done with the equipment that was provided to support health care during hazmat/CBRNE events. In other cases, hospital administrators have told fire chiefs that the local fire service will be required/expected to perform the decon and triage functions following a hazmat/CBRNE event. It never fails to amaze me that so many hospital administrators believe that the fire service will carry out health-care functions at a hospital site. Many hospital administrators (and government bureaucrats) seem shocked to learn that most fire services in Ontario do not deliver operations or technician-level hazmat services and that, regardless, most available firefighters would be at the incident carrying out consequence-management functions, not at the hospital carrying out health-sector functions.

Ontario did create an Emergency Medical Assistance Team (EMAT) to support the health-care system during major incidents. This team has been deployed periodically for public health issues. (As I write this, the team is deployed to Thunder Bay to assess and treat First Nations residents as they are evacuated due to threats of forest fires.)

Following two years of negotiating among the federal, provincial and local governments, the Office of the Fire Marshal entered into memorandums of understanding with strategically located municipalities to provide a CBRNE and a HUSAR emergency response capability for Ontario, programs still in place today. There have been a limited number of activations, deployments and exercises involving these teams. There seems to be little interest on the part of government to pre-position these resources, even when threat assessments warrant it. 

Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, plans were quickly developed and implemented by EMO and the Office of the Fire Marshal to allow the Ontario fire service to request heavy resources quickly without an involved bureaucratic process. This has sped up the deployment of provincial resources, but, in reality, it still takes a significant amount of time to have required resources such as CBRNE, HUSAR or EMAT on the ground and fully operational.

For those who thought that we were living in a close to perfect world 10 years ago, it has become more obvious than ever that there are bad people waiting to do bad things to good people. Considerable efforts have been made to plan for many more contingencies than ever envisioned a decade ago. Our reliance upon and ability to deploy mutual-aid resources has increased and improved. At the same time, fire-service resources are dwindling. Many municipalities are reluctant to replace aging apparatuses and equipment or choose to defer the replacement far too long. We are living in a world in which all of our community-safety resources and assets are being questioned and the need is challenged by various levels of government on an annual basis, usually during the budget cycle. There is ongoing pressure to consolidate or regionalize fire services and amalgamate fire services with EMS. 

Several Ontario fire departments have been directed to wind down and stop delivering specialized rescue services while others have stopped simply because there is a lack of trained firefighters.

We are delivering fire-protection services in a much different context than we were a decade ago. Many volunteer firefighters have fewer than five years’ service or experience, and, in many cases, volunteer firefighters do not stay on a fire department for more than five to seven years due to social, economic or family circumstances.

While all of this has been going on, police services throughout Canada have received significant funding for staffing, various programs, training and equipment. Police services continue to receive the lion’s share of funding because they are well organized and lobby well. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, have been packaged by some as a law-enforcement problem and politicians at senior levels have been lulled into a false sense of security, believing that increased funding for police services will solve a national security and sovereignty problem.

Police services in Canada got it right a long time ago. When police services were asked to step up and take on additional programs, duties or responsibilities, they learned to say no until they were given authority under the law and were adequately funded. The needs of police services in Canada are represented to the government through the federal solicitor general. We have all witnessed this representation work well following the events of Sept. 11 – new laws, new equipment and additional police officers have been put in place across the country. Perhaps this nation’s fire services should start saying no to new initiatives, when appropriate, until they are authorized in law and adequately funded.

During the same time, very little funding and very few resources have been invested in fire services for training, equipment, technological change and consequence management of large or complex incidents. While all of these additional police officers and peace officers were hired following Sept. 11, 2001, not one additional firefighter position was funded through the federal government. It really is time that Canada had a federal minister or senior public servant with the stomach to capably and adequately represent the needs of our fire services to our national government. 

We have been taught during emergency-management programs that all emergencies are local. I believe that this is as true today as it was 10 years ago. Many fire chiefs also believe that the federal government is using this catchphrase as an opportunity to save money and download responsibilities onto subordinate levels of government and non-government organizations, and thus abdicate its responsibility to support those who respond when the government is unable to defend its sovereignty or civil population.


Brad Bigrigg has served in public safety throughout Ontario for almost 35 years, as a police officer, volunteer chief fire officer, assistant fire chief responsible for fire and EMS operations, and emergency manager for the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal. He is currently the fire chief for Caledon Fire and Emergency Services. Brad is also an associate instructor for the Ontario Fire College and Emergency Management Ontario. E-mail him at brad.bigrigg@caledon.ca


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