Fire Fighting in Canada

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Trainer’s Corner: Should I risk my life?

July 19, 2023 
By Ed Brouwer

Wildfire suppression crews take risks, but those risks must be re-evaluated if they are part of a knee-jerk plan. PHOTO CREDIT: MIRIAM/ADOBE STOCK

I was listening with great interest to Global News the morning I began to write this. There were multiple reports on the out-of-control wildfires ravaging our province. As the reporter concluded his detailed report on safety concerns and preparedness he said, “This may be the worst fire season in B.C.’s history.” Then they went to commercial, and it was, of all things, a trailer for a new TV series called “LA Fire & Rescue.” The shot was of a female firefighter in full bunker gear stating matter-of-factly: “Should I risk my life? The answer is yes!”   

I looked at the TV and thought, are you kidding me? I really struggle with this “risk taker” image Hollywood presents. Perhaps it’s the voices of the more than 80 firefighter’s ghosts I still hear in my head. It also bothered me to see a female firefighter portrayed that way. If it was a male, it would have been less shocking, because let’s be honest, males have been known to do some incredibly risky things.  I can’t remember ever hearing a woman say, “Hey, hold my beer as I…” There are certainly daredevil women out there, but it seems to me they are much more risk conscious about how certain actions may affect others. 

I have found female firefighters to be cool, calm, and quick thinking under pressure. Of the hundreds of firefighters we pushed through our “Firefighter’s Ghost” entrapment maze, none of the female firefighters worsened their entanglement by forcing their way through. I recollect the men to be more like “bulls in a China shop.”  

My wife was on our wildfire suppression Crew for 10 years.  She was one of the main reasons we were able to go 31 years without a major incident. Did we take risks? Of course. But the whole crew knew that when they heard her say, “Ed?”, we would be re-evaluating our knee-jerk reaction plan.   


The statement — “Should I risk my life? The answer is yes!” — implies firefighters don’t have a choice.  This type of type of thinking messes up young firefighters, who can be easily overwhelmed with a hero complex, and it messes up how the public views us, thereby putting unrealistic expectations on us.      

Risk is a part of life.  The heart of risk management is in identifying and evaluating risks and deciding on how to best deal with them. 

NFPA 1500 specifies the minimum requirements for an occupational safety and health program for fire departments or organizations that provide rescue, fire suppression, emergency medical services, hazardous materials mitigation, special operations, and other emergency services.

  • Let me ask you, does everyone in your department know about NFPA 1500?
  • Have you as their training officer walked them through these minimum requirements?
  • May I be as bold as to ask, “Do you even know what it says?”

Thankfully, fire fighting is not listed among the three most dangerous job sectors in Canada (those honours go to manufacturing, construction and transportation). And I give the credit to the unrelenting work of safety officers, prevention officers, and fire inspectors.  

To deal with an issue in my last department’s Organizational Chart, I approached the chief and suggested we dissolve one of the two assistant chief positions and create a new position of safety officer. He agreed and we approached the two assistant chiefs with the idea. To my surprise one of them jumped at the chance, and it was a great fit. It was a lot of work, but with NFPA 1500 as a guideline, our department soon had its first fire safety officer. However, I noticed a strange thing. After the initial honeymoon period, some firefighters saw the safety officer’s enforcement of NFPA 1500 standards as annoying critiques. We humans are a strange bunch. 

People are wrong to think firefighters risking their life on the fireground are more heroic than the actions taken by safety officers, prevention officers, and fire inspectors before the call comes in. It may be hard to prove, but I believe these unsung heroes may save more people than firefighters do.  

No matter how you look at it, I’m pretty sure we will never see Hollywood produce a blockbuster movie about fire prevention.

Firefighters saying — “Should I risk my life? The answer is yes!” — are often the ones who ignore safety standards. They fly by the seat of their pants making quick decisions based on gut feelings, rather than the all-important skill of situational awareness. 

Did you hear about Dillon Reeves? He is the seventh grader who stopped a 15,000-pound school bus with 65 children on it. He jumped into action when he noticed the driver having a medical emergency. I read he was the only kid on the bus without a cell phone. He was the only one out of 65 who had situational awareness. Situational awareness is an excellent topic to research.   

Now that I’m retired, my wife and I own and operate a horse ranch. I get to do a lot of tractor work. I’ve jumped into my F350 pick-up, flipped my right signal light on and wondered why I wasn’t moving. Then suddenly I’d realize I was in the truck not on my tractor, which has a shuttle shift (lever same place as signal light lever), where is up is forward, down is reverse. I thought it was an age-related mix up, however I recently read that your mind is built for pattern recognition. So, when my brain saw I wanted to go forward in my truck it quickly reached into my memory and produced a response based on what worked to solve a similar problem earlier that day…on the tractor. 

Your mind says, “I’ve seen this before, and I know precisely what to do.”

Another example: My truck is a diesel; my wife’s truck is gas and the odd time I drive her truck I automatically turn the key and wait to let the glow plugs warm up. 

In Fire, we need to understand not only how situational awareness works, but how confirmation bias operates. 

For example, I really appreciate the FFIC editorial staff; they make me sound and look good. My brain usually goes faster than my one educated finger when typing my column, so sometimes I type “teh” thinking it was “the”. I usually don’t see the mistake I made when I proofread my own work.  

This is referred to as confirmation bias, which is the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions and or expectations and to ignore what contradicts our preconceptions.  

Another characteristic of confirmation bias is that we do not see the change, or if we subconsciously see it, we undervalue its importance. That is the trouble with risk taking according to your “gut” feeling.

A prime example: We have been told repeatedly during SCBA practice to “shake” to stop the PASS alarm from activating, told to the point that it no longer sends a warning to our brain that a firefighter is in trouble on the fire ground.  

Research in visual attention has revealed several ways that people don’t see what is in their visual field. These aspects are inattentional blindness, change blindness and confirmation bias. Inattentional blindness is the “looked-but-failed-to-see” effect. It happens when you fail to notice something that is fully obvious in front of you and your attention is on something or someone else.   

How often does this happen at a fire scene? It is easy for the IC’s focus to be on one aspect of a scene while he or she overlooks what someone else sees as fully obvious. Inattentional blindness has been implicated as a common cause of traffic accidents.   

This confirms the need for more than one pair of eyes doing a continual size up. Safety officers and ICs working in tandem is of the utmost importance. 

Change blindness is a failure to notice that something is different from what it was. Every married man on the planet has suffered from this. My wife has more than once in these past 48 years looked at me and said, “Well?” This was usually after her getting a new hair style or worse for me, a new colour. I now know when she stands directly in front of me and says, “Well?”, it means I better do a quick “size-up”.  

Our province is burning, as I said earlier, perhaps the worst fire season in B.C.’s history. Now if a fire was approaching our ranch, I would want firefighters to be ready and willing to take action. And I’d welcome them when they showed up.  Yet, my preference would be that the ranch doesn’t catch fire in the first place. So, the focus for me as the homeowner should be on fire prevention and preparedness!    

For over 31 years of responding to both structural and wildland fires, I have witnessed the disregard for our safety by the home or property owners. Unmarked driveways, lightweight bearing bridges, narrow driveways with no room to turn around, firewood stored against the house, unkept yards, abandoned vehicles, locked gates, packs of dogs, low hanging branches (ladder fuels), propane and other fuel tanks…etc. And yet somehow, we feel obligated to risk our very lives?

  • With that in mind does your department have a Structural Triage Plan?  
  • If you do have one, do those living in your fire protection district understand it?

The risks on the fireground are constantly changing, situations are evolving moment by moment, we need to be in a constant state of awareness and preparedness.  

How? We need to get up close and personal with NFPA 1500.

Chapter 4 section 4.2.1 of NFPA 1500 (2007) states that the fire department shall develop and adopt a comprehensive written risk management plan (p.1). Section 4.2.2 further states that the risk management plan shall at least cover the risks associated with administration, facilities, training, vehicle operations, both emergency and non-emergency incidents, and other related activities. (p.1)

When we practice safety, we manage our risks.  Note I said, our risks. You are not a Superhero, you are part of department, a crew, or a unit. You may say, “I will risk my life,” but are you offering up your fellow firefighters’ lives as well? They are the ones who will have to go in and rescue you, or worse drag you out in a body bag. But hey, you might get a department funeral.  And your family may get some of those fancy sandwiches with the crust cut off, and perhaps a nice Canadian flag! Too much? Too dramatic? That’s the point! 

We may risk our lives a lot to protect savable lives… We may risk our lives a little to protect savable property … We will NOT risk our lives at all for lives or property that are already lost.

Thank you for all you are doing in the Canadian fire services.  If I can be of any help to you, please feel free to contact me.  And as always, please continue to train as if lives depend on it, because they do.  

A tip of the hat to all safety officers, prevention officers, and fire inspectors — our unsung heroes. 4-9-4   Ed

Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., retired deputy chief training officer for Greenwood Fire and Rescue, a fire warden, wildland urban interface fire-suppression instructor and ordained disaster-response chaplain. Contact 

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