As a fire officer of a volunteer fire department, I maintain an interest in the issues and incidents in the rest of the country. While we all hear about large-scale incidents handled by big-city fire departments, the other 89 per cent of the fire service rests in regular small-town Canada. In the past year or so, I’ve become more and more disturbed with the goings on affecting the volunteer fire service.
If you are any kind of reputable fire officer, you can’t help but be concerned with what I see as ways to point an accusing finger at those who serve their communities. It seems to me that governments and those who are not directly involved in the fire service are sometimes quick to do this.
Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) has become a buzz phrase in our everyday work life. But the fact is that the Canadian fire service embraced OH&S long before it became a corporate catch-all and long before workers’ compensation agencies and OH&S watchdogs took to the prevention side because, in Newfoundland and Labrador at least, they were paying out claims hand over fist to other industries.
It was once described to me in an OH&S course that even though firefighters have one of the most dangerous jobs, historically, injury claims for firefighters were far lower than many other less hazardous occupations. Why? Because for generations, we wore PPE on the job, we drilled our tasks, we maintained our tools and equipment, and we trained and practised for the worst, and then put it all together under some type of command system, with discipline and teamwork.
The issues in Meaford, Ont. – where the fire department and the municipality were charged under provincial occupational health and safety legislation after two firefighters were injured during a search – and the like have me asking whether we are doing something wrong to have the wrath of the Crown swoop down on us for simply trying to help our communities.
Where do we get off thinking that we are always doing good and just trying to make our communities safer? Well, after much thought, I concluded that firefighters sincerely care for their communities, but most of all I think they care for the safety of people. That is why I, along with just about every one of my colleagues, continually try to educate myself and stay abreast of the latest training techniques and safety updates.
Why is it, then, that the very governments we serve to the best of our abilities are looking over our shoulders, scrutinizing every move, but cannot comprehend what it is like to stand on the fire ground and make those crucial, split-second, potentially life-and-death decisions?
Fire officers are there to make sure we work safely, taking all factors into consideration. Then, those in control on the fire ground try to make the right decisions and execute them with tactical perfection with a crew of firefighters who, five minutes earlier, were at their regular day jobs. Also, the fire officer must make that call with a brief size-up and has just minutes to make decisions. Then, if someone gets hurt in a situation that was already dangerous to begin with, the same government agency will take months to investigate and analyze a decision that was made in minutes, and then decide if you or your department or municipality should be charged for that action.
I met a few of the firefighters from Meaford recently. I admired them and told them I was proud of them as I understand the stress that the charges and the trial must have placed on them (five of the six charges were dropped; the sixth charge, of failing to establish an accountability system, was dismissed in August). No one intentionally sets out to hurt anyone at an incident.
More recently, I also think of our colleagues in Elliot Lake. The initial crew that responded to the collapse of the Algo Centre Mall would have been the size of my own fire department. I can’t help but wonder what goes through a fire chief’s mind during the incident, and now after the national spotlight has been switched off. I am sure that safety for all was Chief Paul Officer’s prime concern from the activation of the pager to the moment the HUSAR team was called in and when the decision was made to stop the search for safety reasons. Then Premier Dalton McGuinty got involved and called for more action; did McGuinty supersede his province’s own occupational health and safety legislation?
The fire departments of small-town Canada are left to analyze what it is we do, learn as much as we can and hope that everything goes our way at the next call. Don’t be discouraged; sooner or later, with continuous input from the fire service, governments and bureaucrats will get it right, and perhaps the millions spent prosecuting safety mishaps will be reallocated to fund the training required to meet the guidelines set by those very governments and bureaucrats.
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
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