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Volunteer Vision: Getting our training priorities straight

Before anyone gets upset with my view here, let me explain. I believe Canadian fire services have achieved our goal with regards to fire prevention – or we’re very close to achieving it – and now it’s time to move on.

February 25, 2009
By Brad Patton

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Before anyone gets upset with my view here, let me explain. I believe Canadian fire services have achieved our goal with regards to fire prevention – or we’re very close to achieving it – and now it’s time to move on.

Unlike our brothers and sisters in police and ambulance services, in my opinion, we have met our primary objective. We have significantly reduced the number of fires that we respond to. The other agencies still have their same basic challenges, be they high crime rates or patient outcomes. And they now have much larger budgets and more staffing, but I’ll stick to the fire service issues here so I won’t get into too much trouble with other emergency agencies.

When I started in the fire service some 30 years ago, the department I was with responded to between 275 and 300 fire calls a year. Now I believe that department responds to fewer than 50 fires a year.

The fire service attacked the issue of fire prevention by declaring all-out war on fires. We devised a multi-pronged attack, consisting of public education programs for all ages and strict code enforcement. We lobbied governments for changes in new building construction designs and materials. We went after new buildings, old buildings, high-occupancy buildings and high-risk buildings. We tackled the problem of fire in our society and we have been successful.

Now I believe we are at a point when it’s time to change direction, to re-focus our collective thrust and priorities. Just so I’m clear, I don’t mean we should forget about prevention and public education. These need to be maintained. I’m just saying it’s time to focus our collective energy on the next big problem.

This, in my opinion is training our staff to meet the diverse needs of our customers. Now is the time to legislate change and provincially monitor training programs to ensure compliance.

We need to standardize the training programs, the objectives and outcomes like we did with fire prevention codes – zero tolerance with non-compliance. We need to educate fire chiefs, municipal councils, other governing bodies and the public about the fact that we need to train our firefighters better – much better.

Firefighters require one of the most diverse skill sets of any occupation. The hazards associated with structural fire fighting have never been as dangerous as they are today. The extrication of people involved in motor vehicle accidents is more complex and more dangerous than ever. All departments may need to respond to hazardous chemical spills, trench collapses, building collapses, different types of weather emergencies. We also respond to in-water rescues, high-angle rope rescues, etc. The training list is long and daunting. We need to make protecting our own our new No. 1 priority so we can protect others better.

We need to embrace this problem with the same vigour we did fire prevention. It should be mandatory that every county, region or department have a full-time training officer and provincially approved standard training programs.

No longer should we be allowed to train firefighters with old or outdated lesson plans. No longer should it be permissible not to have detailed lesson plans and sign-off forms for all firefighters. Each lesson should end with a detailed test that becomes a permanent record that shows all firefighters understood what they were taught and can apply it in the field of operations.

Municipal councils, fire boards, fire chiefs and provincial advisories must all ensure that volunteer firefighters get a level of training to ensure they can safely and quickly respond to all types of emergencies – as firefighters, engineers, chemists, electricians, medics, and so much more.

As volunteer firefighters, we need to ensure that our training is unsurpassed. The time we have with staff is limited, so let’s put the energy into it that it deserves.

After every training session or practice, everyone involved should walk away knowing that they obtained a new skill to improve their performance, or that they have learned a safer and faster way to do an old skill. In cold language, we have always said we are No. 1, that our safety is monumental and that we will risk a lot to save a lot.

Now is the time to put training our firefighters before all else.

Just my thoughts from this side of the desk.


Brad Patton is fire chief for the Centre Wellington Volunteer Fire Rescue Department in Ontario, one of the largest volunteer departments in the province, with stations in Fergus and Elora.


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