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View from the East: May 2010

The fire service in the east is, for the most part, as diverse as our cultures. Fire departments spanning large metropolitan centres are not the norm here, but nonetheless, the fire service is an assortment of different levels of servicing.

April 23, 2010
By Vince MacKenzie

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The fire service in the east is, for the most part, as diverse as our cultures. Fire departments spanning large metropolitan centres are not the norm here, but nonetheless, the fire service is an assortment of different levels of servicing. I speak primarily of the fire service in Atlantic Canada, and Newfoundland and Labrador in particular, as it is the forum with which I am most familiar. Having stated that, I do have an appreciation for some of the challenges around the rest of the Maritimes through my involvements and exposures to some of the fine people serving the Atlantic fire service

Where to start? Well, if you watch the tourism commercials featuring icebergs, lobsters, whales, the Bluenose and Green Gables, I can tell you that servicing these areas is not as exotic as one might suspect. When it comes to the delivery of service to our public, we share many of the same challenges as other Canadian departments but we seem to do it with less funding and smaller population bases from which to draw. There are instances in which very unique ways of delivering service are the norm due to climate, municipal infrastructure, lonely distances, limited water supply and demographics. I have travelled throughout the fire service spectrum in Canada and I do run into some typical stereotyping of the east but I guarantee you there is a common thread of issues nationwide.

Many of our communities place considerable value on their fire departments, no matter what level of service exists. Many communities have one major industry or economic engine that requires protection. It is ironic that governments spend so much money trying to bring new business and industries to rural areas but fail miserably in their attempts to fund the protection of what they already have. Fire protection is a service that many compare solely by how far away the local fire station is. True fire protection starts long before the alarm with inspection, prevention, training and engineering. Where do rural fire services get funding for those types of resources – by selling turkey suppers?

Think about your community. Do you have a large processing plant or manufacturer or a mine? What happens if that facility is suddenly lost? What happens to the community if owners don’t rebuild? Are you confident as a firefighter that we have done all we can to protect that structure and the jobs it contains before the fire? Most of us cannot answer affirmatively as the fire service in Atlantic Canada is generally under funded and relies on fundraising to keep up.

I know many chiefs who wish they had more inspection and prevention resources but they must channel funds to keep their operations running. So, here we go, pleading our poor mouths again. Governments say we have to hold the line on spending as times are fragile. Well folks, from where we sit, that is about the most convincing argument I have heard to increase funding to ensure we protect what we already have.

Fire protection is a system; some say it is driven from the top and some argue it is driven from the bottom. Regardless, in order to provide adequate fire protection, we must be well funded. Governments at all levels must bear and share responsibility for the fire services. It is easy to label our service a municipal one but the provinces and the nation have vested interests in how we are doing. In my view, they are oblivious to it.

My vision is of a fire service that is supported adequately by all levels of government. Call me a dreamer but I advocate for federal support with an effective funding program that is channelled to the provinces to assist with large infrastructure and training initiatives. An incentive in income tax relief for volunteer firefighters would be nice too. Sound familiar?

Heavy investment by the provinces to maintain training to some form of provincial standards should be a no brainer. The availability of firefighting resources within a region based on a solid planning with networks of fire departments that are interoperable and co-operate with each other is crucial. Placing equipment in strategic locations and enacting legislation that has teeth with enforceable aspects would be good starts.

The municipalities, which bear the highest cost of fire protection, must be able to avail of all funding provided to truly enhance their fire departments.

Acquiring extra funding from all three levels of government is essential to meeting future fire protection needs in our eastern communities. Equally, spending that money in more effective ways requires a little more thinking outside the box on our part. Perhaps that word that comes up all the time lately – regionalization – may be a part of the great solution in some areas. More on that next time.


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