ViewPoint: May 2012
I am pleased to be writing for Fire Fighting in Canada on issues facing the Canadian fire service.
April 20, 2012 By Richard Boyes
I am pleased to be writing for Fire Fighting in Canada on issues facing the Canadian fire service. Having spent more than 38 years in the fire service, and being involved in many issues locally and nationally, I’ve developed some thoughts and opinions on many fire-service subjects. The intent of this column is to address the issues, problems and challenges that the fire service faces.
Having left active duty in the fire service last June, I have found that my point of view has changed as I start to look in from the outside. Although I am still involved with committees and associations, I now see things from a different perspective. I have been fortunate to spend time in both the volunteer and full-time fire services, so some columns will address issues that affect all of the fire service; others will focus on just part of the fire service. Let’s get started.
By the time you read this, most fire departments will have had their annual budgets approved, but as municipalities face ever-pressing financial pressures, very few fire services will have escaped a budget cut or reduction. Reductions are not new to the fire service. I think back to one of my first budgets in the 1980s. The message from council that year was one of restraint and that all municipal departments were to keep their budget requests to five per cent or less. We would love to have that budget directive today! As financial pressures grew, we all went through the zero-per-cent years, and we continued to reduce our operating and capital budgets to meet the requests of council, but few departments, if any, reduced the level of service. We just did more with less – and this became the popular fire-service saying.
Why the history lesson? It is apparent that Canadian fire services have followed the directions of council very well, and that their budgets have contracted or, at least, have not grown at the proper rate to allow for delivery of all services that councils have approved. Fire services just make do, but now we have reached a breaking point. Many fire chiefs I have spoken to are working very hard to continue to provide the approved levels of service with fewer resources. Herein lies the problem: Who is responsible for the delivery of services? Of course, we know it is council; councillors are elected to set policy to provide services to the municipality. The fire chief implements policy; that is his/her job.
Here is the question: When things go wrong at a fire scene, auto extrication or as part of any other service that you are authorized to provide, who is blamed? If you answered council, you may be right; if you answered the fire chief, you may be right. So who is it?
The answer is that it should be council. Why? Because the fire chief, in exercising his/her duties, has duly informed council in writing that the level of service cannot be maintained with the current level of funding. Therefore, council will have revised its service-delivery policy, and communicated it to the rate-payers and the fire department. If the fire chief has not informed council of a problem with the delivery of approved services due to a lack of resources – be it staff and/or equipment – the fire chief will be the person who will be held responsible.
The days of the fire chief being blameless because he/she was just trying to help are gone. If a firefighter is hurt or killed and it can be attributed to lack of training and/or equipment, or there is a large property loss due to lack of equipment and/or staff and the fire chief has not properly informed council of this problem, he/she will be blamed. If you think it cannot happen to you, think again. It is happening right now to far too many fire departments/fire chiefs than I care to mention.
The fire service needs to recognize that it cannot keep doing everything for everybody with limited funding and/or resources.
It is the duty of the fire-service leaders to inform their councils that there are limits to the way municipal fire services are provided when funding has been reduced. The municipality answers to the ratepayers, and the fire chief answers to council.
Make sure you or your fire department has informed council of the fire department’s limitations in the delivery of fire services.
I know it is not in our makeup to do this but consider the alternative. At least that is my point of view.
Richard Boyes is chair of the Canadian Governmental Committee, a past president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and the former fire chief in Oakville, Ont., and Sarnia, Ont. He is an instructor for the CAFC/OAFC Beyond Helmets and Hoses leadership program. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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