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March 5, 2015, Prince Albert, Sask. - If you follow my blogs and columns with Fire Fighting in Canada, you know that I write about leadership and how we can collectively make the profession better. This has been a hard blog to write and has taken me more than a week as I keep running into mental roadblocks. I am frustrated and angry at the loss of lives on First Nations reserves across Canada and the recent tragedy in the Rural Municipality of Morris, Man., where four young boys lost their lives in a house fire.

This past January on the English River First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, two young lives were lost in a house fire. And more recently on Feb. 17, two siblings (24 and 12 months old) died in a house fire on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation reserve. That particular story created a significant stir in the news and social media due to the fact that the nearby community of Loon Lake discontinued firefighting services for the reserve.

There are just too many sides to the Makwa Sahgaiechan First Nation tragedy and the finger pointing needs to stop. Rather than get caught up in the hype, solutions need to be found and they will require true leadership from First Nations communities, rural and urban municipalities and all levels of government. They must work together to ensure that every citizen in our great country has some form of fire protection services available to them.

In 2013, The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs lobbied federal politicians to pursue three issues to improve fire prevention and fire protection on First Nations reserves:

  1. the implementation of building and fire codes on First Nations communities;
  2. a mandated legislated framework requiring fire inspections and fire investigations;
  3. an independent Fire Marshals office for First Nations communities that would provide oversight and adherence to legislated standards. This would be a great place to start.
There are significant differences in the levels of service among municipalities and First Nations reserves and for the most part there is no legislated requirement to have a fire department in a community.

Whether we want to believe it or not, each municipality determines the level of fire protection it is willing to provide to the community and this is usually based upon services for which the community is willing to pay. In other words, it comes down to financial resources of the community and the willingness to place fire safety as a priority.

Unfortunately many people without fire-protection services make assumptions that their neighbouring fire departments will respond to help them in their times of need. This simply isn’t the case and far too often people have unrealistic expectations for fire departments to respond to their communities when no formal agreements exist. Yes, this goes against the philosophy of many firefighters who are willing to respond anywhere at anytime, but the harsh reality is that fire-service agreements, mutual-aid and automatic-aid agreements are essential for keeping our communities safe.

This is a complex issue and it is a sad state of affairs when rural fire departments across Canada are forced to raise money for equipment and vehicles because of their minimal budgets. Dumping more funding to purchase trucks and PPE will not save lives because you need trained firefighters to use the equipment. Additional funding is a start, but firefighters must be trained and a solid core of firefighters must be available.

In the volunteer departments, this means that people give of their time to be a part of their local fire departments because they want to make a difference. But it’s not that simple because recruitment and retention issues are another reality for volunteer departments across Canada.

So what is the answer? It’s going to take the collective leadership from federal, provincial and First Nations groups to solve the problem and to make fire safety a priority.

How many lives need to be lost on First Nations reserves and in rural communities before a minimum standard is established for fire-protection services?

Les Karpluk is the retired fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. He is a graduate of the Lakeland College Bachelor of Business in Emergency Services program and Dalhousie University’s Fire Administration and Fire Service Leadership programs. Follow him on Twitter at @GenesisLes

March 5, 2015 
By Les Karpluk

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