Fire Fighting in Canada

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Volunteer Vision: September 2011

As firefighters, we tend to see in our own circles, but we also have a greater understanding, awareness of, and respect for the dedication of all our uniformed services.

September 7, 2011
By Vince MacKenzie

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As firefighters, we tend to see in our own circles, but we also have a greater understanding, awareness of, and respect for the dedication of all our uniformed services.

While Sept. 11, 2001, was a particularly devastating day for the fire service, our profession also recognizes the police and EMS personnel who were sacrificed that day and in the days and events that followed. Also, since Sept. 11, 2001, men and women of our armed forces have been lost fighting the war on terrorism. I dedicate this column to all emergency responders and soldiers lost.

What did the events of Sept. 11, 2001, mean for Canada’s volunteer fire services and small-town fire departments? Reflecting on the last 10 years is not easy; what started out as shock that day progressed to hearing our governments speak highly of our services. It was a proud time to be a firefighter, and many have been inspired to join our profession with 9-11 in mind. The public respect for firefighters has led our elected officials to take notice and to support fire services in the best way they know how.

We in various provincial fire-service associations have benefited from the increased awareness by politicians of what we do. As we endeavour to further the fire services in our respective regions, this newfound awareness has been helpful.

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Hazmat, CBRNE, HUSAR and anthrax were the buzzwords of the last decade; gone are the days of just everyday fire fighting. We here in small-town Canada have seen the industry gear itself for these types of incidents; we engage as much as we can and try to absorb as much knowledge as possible on these topics.

I remember sitting in my first CBRNE class, taught by fine folks from Ottawa’s Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness (which has since become Emergency Preparedness Canada), on tour to spread the word that Canada’s emergency responders need to be ready. I remember thinking that it was great to be made aware of those types of threats, and as a firefighter, I already had a greater understanding than most.

But I also remember wondering how in the world I would sell this training to my department with the knowledge that terrorists are unlikely to strike small-town Newfoundland, or convince council that it needed to fund the training for these new threats. It all seemed so big-time – covert spy stuff – and delving into the minds of the next would-be terrorists was mind-boggling.

But 9-11 did touch Newfoundland and Labrador in a profound and unique way. Being the closest land mass to Europe, all flights caught in the air over the Atlantic Ocean made a beeline for the nearest airport, in Gander. We in small-town Newfoundland saw a population explosion of all cultures stranded for days. Flight crews from around the world slept in the hotel just a kilometre from my fire station. 

Volunteer firefighters struggle every day with home, work and fire-department life. While a major terrorist event happening in a community served by a volunteer fire department is unlikely, first responders have to be vigilant to the threats. We can’t live our lives in fear of this type of threat, but we have to be ready and we have to train for all eventualities. The threat of terrorism has made us all more vigilant. The best thing to come out of all this, in my mind, is the fact that the Canadian fire service has adopted an all-hazards approach to training. The terrorism threat has made us better prepared for the everyday tanker truck rollover, for example.

While I don’t envision Canada’s volunteer fire services being totally ready for all aspects of terrorist threats, we are far more aware of, and a little better prepared for, the next time. I guess the nature of terrorism is just that – a move by extremists to circumvent all of society’s preparations to feel safe and secure. 

So, in some respects, all that we do may be in vain if there are those out there studying our every move in order to execute some dastardly event for maximum effectiveness.

The fire service is better prepared since 9-11 – some may argue that it is not well-enough prepared – but then, it seems, no extent of preparation or funding will be enough.

Larger cities have taken advantage of funding for planning, training, and overall awareness. We in the volunteer circles, with smaller communities and budgets, have done our best – but at the end of the day, we will all be scrambling to respond, armed with better awareness if nothing else.


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Service, the second vice president of the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association and a director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. E-mail him at firechief@grandfallswindsor.com


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