Volunteer Vision: November 2013

All talk, no action for first responders
November 12, 2013
Written by Vince MacKenzie
The past summer seems to have been rife with disaster and conflagrations. Newscasts and social media sites were filled with details of events and suffering, with floods in Alberta, forest fires in every province from British Columbia to Newfoundland, and the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Que. Surely these incidents made every Canadian firefighter wonder how similar situations would play out in their communities and fire departments.

These disasters have highlighted the efforts of local emergency responders and the myriad issues that affected their respective communities. While some of these incidents occurred in larger centres, many, including the Lac-Megantic train derailment and subsequent explosions that killed 47 people, occurred within the jurisdictions of volunteer fire departments.

The same newscasts that featured these incidents captured the ever-present images of politicians singing the praises of local emergency responders and pledging support from Ottawa. I saw Prime Minister Stephen Harper comment on these tragedies, praise the work of emergency services, and speak highly of the federal government’s commitment to responders and the work they do.

But those words, to me, have become tainted, as I wonder if this is the same federal government that quietly cut its portion of the funding for emergency-service and disaster-preparedness programs in Canada. The recent termination of funding for the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP) and the closing of the federal emergency preparedness college signify the continuation of Ottawa’s retreat from support for emergency preparedness and the downloading of responsibility to the provinces. That JEPP funding financed the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) teams in larger Canadian cities. Sure, Ottawa has pledged lots of rebuilding for fire and flood victims and for Lac-Megantic, but who dares to call out the prime minister or other politicians on funding issues when lives have been lost and communities are in peril?

Federal funding for emergency preparedness, public safety, and first-responder equipment and training is and has been woefully inadequate in this country. In the United States, federal grants and initiatives for fire are much more plentiful. Of course, the arguments are made that fire services are a municipal concern, and emergency preparedness is a provincial issue, but our federal government bears responsibility, in my view, when disaster strikes. Certainly the feds jump in front of the cameras when tragedy affects our towns and cities, but it’s clear to me they should be preparing for the larger-scale events by strengthening Canada’s fire services, not eroding specialized programs through funding cuts. 

The fire service is a community’s first response when disaster strikes, yet most federal funding provided to public safety is allocated to police forces. Perhaps the problem is that most Canadian fire services are volunteer. The thousands of volunteer fire departments, and the dedicated men and women who staff them, often look to charity and fundraisers to improve their training and equipment and are used to doing the best with what they have.

Municipalities are responsible for fire services, and dealing with large-scale emergencies would undoubtedly require after-the-fact assistance from provincial and federal governments, so shouldn’t the government provide ongoing financial support to fire departments so that they are ready should disaster strike?

Governments of all levels have looked upon police forces as necessary services to be funded and staffed exclusively with career personnel. Firefighters, on the other hand, pass the boot at community events to fund training and equipment. Smaller communities can’t afford full-time fire services and do not have the incident volume of larger communities, but is that a good reason to not fund their training or provide equipment assistance?

We have to demand more of our associations and politicians. Federal support for fire services must catch up with the realities of our increasingly dangerous times and environments. It is high time Canada’s fire departments organized comprehensive actions so voters and politicians take notice. As fire-service leaders, we need to take a page from our friends in the United States and prepare comprehensive, well-researched reports and arguments full of statistics and examples so Ottawa will understand our issues and concerns. Voters drive change, so it’s up to us to convince our residents and taxpayers of the need for federal support.

If our federal politicians were challenged about the emergency preparedness cuts, perhaps they wouldn’t be so quick to jump in front of the cameras.

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 and a director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. E-mail him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince

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