Editor’s blog
Written by Laura King
May 18, 2017, Toronto - A firefighter with experience in water-ice rescue testified Wednesday at an inquest examining training deaths that he avoids exercises in icy, swift water because it is too dangerous.
Written by Laura King
Jan. 19, 2017, Toronto -  It’s complicated, this two-hatter issue. But the gist of it is this: an American-based trade union is denying its members the freedom that other Canadians have to work and do what they want in their spare time – build decks, plow snow, fix plumbing, be volunteer/part-time firefighters in their home communities.
The union – the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) – on Monday tried four of its members who work full time in Mississauga, Ont., and also work part time¬ in Halton Hills, a community northwest of Toronto with a composite fire department.

The IAFF constitution prohibits secondary employment – it forbids firefighters from working part time in another union shop (as firefighters, paramedics or public-safety officers), and members who do so are disciplined for violating an oath. Oddly, the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association allows, by its own count, about 1,000 of its members to work as paramedics, without reprisal. 

Monday’s session ¬– an internal trial board hearing ¬– was closed; Mississauga’s past union president Mark Train, who sometimes represents the union in legal matters, declined to discuss details, saying the process has not concluded and, “as such I will not comment on the matter.”

The hearing started and ended Monday but the trial board has a period of time during which to mete out penalties. One of the four firefighters on trail admitted to violating the IAFF constitution and resigned Monday night from the Halton Hills Fire Department. 

The penalty being considered for the other firefighters is a $1,000 initial fine followed by monthly levies of $500, and another $500 for every six months during which the part-time activities continue – a fairly blunt deterrent. 

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the union would revoke the two-hatters’ memberships, thereby potentially affecting their full-time jobs; most collective agreements require municipalities to employ only firefighters who are associatin members, and the IAFF has pressed towns and cities to terminate firefighters who have been dismissed from the union.

The Halton Hills firefighters represented themselves at Monday’s hearing – legal counsel was not provided; in fact, the municipality is eliminating two-hatters through attrition, and has declined to hire two hatters for its part-time roster since 2011 in anticipation of union action.

That’s in contrast to Caledon, Ont., a large, composite department with 22 unionized career firefighters and more than 250 volunteers. Some Brampton firefighters who work part time in Caledon received letters from their locals in the fall, making it clear that there would be repercussions if they continued to respond to calls as two-hatters. Some two-hatters handed in their pagers but the issue is ongoing. Town of Caledon management is supporting the two-hatters and providing legal counsel. 

And that may lead to the test of Bill 109, which was introduced by the governing Liberals and passed in 2016; it amended Ontario’s Fire Protection and Prevention Act to include a non-discrimination clause meant to ensure that full-time firefighters can also work part time in their smaller, home communities. 

But there’s politics at play. Ontario’s IAFF members, of course, roundly backed Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals during the 2014 provincial election; if Bill 109 is, indeed, tested, and holds up to scrutiny, that sea of support could evaporate. 

While the IAFF is American-based, the two-hatter issue arises only if charges are laid by a member of the offending firefighter’s home local, or by someone else affected by the two-hatting activity. I’m at a bit of a loss to understand how unionized firefighters in Mississauga are affected by their colleagues’ part-time employment in Halton Hills, but maybe I’m missing something.

And, in what seems to be a conflicting philosophy, the OPFFA’s fire-paramedic proposal would allow members who are both firefighters and paramedics to administer symptom relief to patients at medical calls; critics claim the plan is simply a way to ensure firefighter jobs. 

Read between the lines.
Written by Beth McKay
Nov. 24, 2016, Niagara Falls, Ont. – Sometimes, as an objective and trained observer, it’s fascinating to be the proverbial fly on the wall, to gather information, filter the rhetoric, and over time, give readers a clear and contextual picture of fire-service issues.

That’s what I’m doing (or trying to do, despite some obstacles) this week, at the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) mid-term conference in Niagara Falls.

While the OAFC unveiled the basics of its new strategic plan Wednesday morning – enhanced communication, revenue generation, government relations, and members services are at the crux of the document – it is, of course, what’s going on in the background that has people talking.

While the OAFC is getting its ducks in a row for its four-year plan– more detail was provided and approval sought from members in Thursday’s closed businesses session – the much larger, better organized Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) is ensconced in its legislative conference at Queen’s Park, and it has the ear of the governing Liberals.

Although the chiefs association has made considerable strides in government relations recently, the better-financed OPFFA, with a strong presence at the legislature and 13,000 boots on the ground, is, as OAFC executive vice-president Rick Arnel noted Wednesday morning, simply, better resourced.

Again this week, the union has caused a bit of a kerfuffle with its fire-medic-turned-fire-paramedic-turned-patients-first proposal, about which the government is asking municipalities for input, and about which the chiefs have not been consulted by government.


The two associations met earlier this week; OPFFA president Rob Hyndman and others, with the OAFC board, to pitch the IAFF’s new fire-ground survival protocol; the two groups have also discussed other issues, including the ever-frustrating two-hatter controversy, of which Brampton and Caledon firefighters are the most recent targets.

Several people have said this week that Tuesday’s chiefs-union get together was productive and that the two associations can, indeed, work well together on issues.

Save, perhaps, the fire-paramedic situation.

Bizarrely, the government issued a discussion paper on Monday titled Patients First: Expanding Medical Responses, which, ostensibly, addresses challenges with land-ambulance service and promotes the OPFFA’s proposal to give expanded duties to firefighters who are also employed as paramedics, in a tiered-response situation (it’s not clear how many firefighters also work as paramedics). According to the discussion paper, this approach would be voluntary for municipalities.

Any changes, of course, to firefighters’ roles, require amendments to the Fire Protection and Prevention Act.

Essentially, the government wants input about the fire-paramedic proposal “to determine service viability and opportunities.”

Ontario, of course, post-amalgamation in 1998, has three tiers of government: municipal, regional and provincial. Fire is municipally funded; EMS is regional. And according to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), that complicates things.

The government document includes no financials, organizational or operations details. Simply, this: “There are three levels of paramedic scope of practice in Ontario. The ministry is exploring the potential option to allow eligible municipalities to choose to allow full-time firefighter to provide care up to the first level (primary care paramedic level).”

A companion document – a lengthy survey being sent to stakeholders, including municipalities – however, makes it clear that any new costs would be municipal responsibilities.

“Funding responsibility of the optional service will remain at 100% municipal cost,” the survey documents says.



“The proposal would be an optional approach that municipalities can choose to implement at councils’ discretion based upon local decision and needs.”

AMO has consistently opposed the fire-medic proposal, since it was first introduced in March 2015.

Municipal governments are deeply concerned about the direct and significant impact of the proposal on municipal emergency services, both financially and operationally,” AMO says on its website.

“We will read the [government] discussion paper carefully, but to date, there has been no evidence or cost-benefit analysis seen that shows such an approach would improve patient outcomes.”

More bluntly, AMO says that given the lack of evidence, it’s flummoxed that the proposal is a provincial priority given that municipalities would bear all the costs., labour challenges, and risks.

“Fire services are 100 [per cent] funded by municipalities and only an elected municipal council has the authority to determine the level and type of fire protection services needed by its community,” AMO says.

“We are also concerned that if any municipal council agrees to this proposal it would be replicated throughout Ontario by the current interest arbitration system.”

Instead, AMO says, it wants the government to redevelop land-ambulance dispatch to improve patient outcomes.

To a fly on the wall and an objective and trained observer, it’s interesting to hear the chatter about issues of the day: frustration that on the one hand, some union members refuse to allow their brethren work as part-time firefighters in their home municipalities, but on the other, could be seen to be impinging on another trade union to guarantee themselves employment longevity.  





 

 

 
Written by Laura King
Nov. 23, 2016, Niagara Falls, Ont. - Not once, in Fire Marshal Ross Nichols’ hour-long address to the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs on Wednesday, did he claim to be “working on” the myriad initiatives that fire services across the province are anxious to see come to fruition.
Written by Laura King
Oct. 26, 2016 – An email landed in my in box last week from the always affable Brent Ross, spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety; Ross was replying to my request for details about the Ontario government’s response to the recommendations from the Elliot Lake inquiry.

The gist is this: an RFS – request for service – has been issued for a review of emergency management in Ontario. The successful vendor will be engaged in November (more than two years after the inquiry recommendations were released); the review will begin in December and be completed in the spring (five years after the collapse of the Algo Centre mall); the process includes consultation but it’s not clear with whom. 

“As part of the emergency management review,” Ross said in the email, “the incident management system will be reviewed and a way forward developed.”

Ontario’s incident management system is a weighty document developed years ago with good intentions but it fails to suit the province’s myriad fire-department configurations and staffing models – career, composite, volunteer, urban, suburban, rural – and needs an overhaul.

With emergency management becoming more relevant given weather events and security issues, it will be interesting to see how the review deals with a key recommendation of Elliot Lake Commissioner Paul Belanger, specifically, to steer clear of unified command.

“There should be only one person in overall charge of a response; a ‘unified command’ structure should be avoided,” Belanger wrote in his final report from the inquiry.

Yet emergency services across the province are training on responses to major incidents using unified command. Last week in Mississauga, police, fire and EMS personnel used unified command in an exercise that simulated an attack on a pipeline; and a few weeks ago in East Gwillimbury, unified command was embraced in a tri-services an exercise involving a threat.

Belanger’s logic is as follows: “One final decision maker is essential to avoid conflicts or impasses caused by failure to reach a consensus. The concept of a unified command structure intrinsically contradicts the unity of command doctrine because it fails to ensure that decisions are made by someone who is ultimately responsible and accountable.”

Indeed, to make his point, Belanger quotes the testimony of Dan Hefkey, the former Commissioner of Community Safety, who helped to write the provincial IMS doctrine.

“So, under unified command, it is operating on the assumption that . . . I don’t know everything you know and you don’t know everything I know, so we are dependent, co-dependent, as a result that’s why you have a unified command,” Hefkey said.

“And it then, when you enter into that agreement . . . there is no supreme arbiter to things; you and I are committing to commanding this incident jointly so that we can come to a mutually acceptable conclusion, so that your interests and my priorities are all met . . .  But. . . it’s not clean and it’s not to say that you’re going to have harmony one hundred per cent of the time. There are times when there are disagreement but when you decide that you are entering into a unified command arrangement that’s what you are doing.”

Question: “A course of action between the two leaders of a unified command, assuming it is two, to disagree is not acceptable, correct?

Hefkey: “No, they can disagree.”

Question: “Sorry, if the disagreement results in no decision being made?”

Hefkey: “That’s unacceptable.”

Question: “That’s unacceptable?”

Hefkey: “Absolutely correct.”

Question: “You, in that particular case you would have dysfunctional unified command?”

Hefkey. “That’s correct.”

“As I have indicated,” Belanger said in the report, “the unified command structure is not well understood by the men and women who have to work with it on a regular basis. This difficulty is, in my view, because they understand that a system which allows for the possibility of clashing or inconsistent decisions, is unworkable.”

Essentially, the commissioner said, the province’s incident-management system should be amended to eliminate the unified command model and require one incident commander “at all times.”

According to Brent Ross, once the emergency management and IMS consultation/review is completed in the spring, the ministry will develop proposals to government in response to the review findings.

I expect Commissioner Belanger will be watching, with interest.
Written by Laura King
Oct. 18, 2016, Toronto – I waited and watched and, sure enough, Friday afternoon, the Ontario government posted an update about the recommendations from the inquiry into the Elliot Lake mall collapse and the emergency response to it.

It’s a brief – and rather vague – document.

There were, you’ll recall, 71 recommendations in the Oct. 14, 2014, inquiry report – many dealing with building inspections and inspectors (the government has, indeed, done some work in those areas), and 31 specific to emergency management.

There are, in the emergency-response section of the press release, nine updates, the first, of course, being a review of emergency management and the provincial incident management system.

 The mall collapsed June 23, 2012; the inquiry convened in August 2013; and the recommendations were released two years ago. Lest I sound like a broken record, some context: In that time, the province of British Columbia – buoyed by a handful of dogged chief fire officers – released a comprehensive report by its fire-services liaison group, created new minimum training standards, developed the Structure Firefighters Competency and Training Playbook, and passed the new Fire Safety Act.

There are lots of action words in the Ontario government’s press release – reviewing, developing, increasing, strengthening, ensuring, exploring, engaging – all in the present tense, all ongoing, all yet to be completed. For example, “Reviewing Ontario’s emergency management and incident management systems to further enhance and improve the province’s ability to respond to emergencies.”

No details are provided and, as far as I’m aware, little has changed. (I’m waiting for an email reply from the Office of the Fire Marshal, specifically about the status of the emergency-management and IMS reviews.) Certainly there had been talk about committees and sub committees and both review processes, but nothing has come to fruition.

Indeed, the government web page about Ontario’s incident-management system still links to the 2008 provincial IMS doctrine, as it’s known, and which inquiry witnesses called unwieldy and impractical.

Why the slower-than-the-speed-of-government response? Let’s review. In August 2013, the Office of the Fire Marshal merged with Emergency Management Ontario. The mandate of the combined agency was (note the past tense) to work with municipal partners to deliver fire-safety and emergency-management programs and services, share expert advice with local decision makers, and support municipal response efforts in emergencies.

In August 2015, fire marshal Ted Wieclawek left the office. OPP inspector Ross Nichols was named interim fire marshal in October 2015; his contract has now twice been extended while the government seeks the (apparently elusive) most-qualified candidate.

I have witnessed myriad presentations about the reorganization of the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management; like everyone else, I waited and watched for change and progress but was told by various OFMEM officials that the reorganization was extensive and time consuming and that, in the words of the fire marshal, “we’re working on it.”

In September in Thunder Bay, Al Suleman, who was director of emergency management with the OFMEM (but is now director of standards, training and public ed), explained that the agency is reorganizing the reorganization (my words, not his) and that the two entities are separating, having found the merger not to their liking – more of an annulment than a divorce given that the marriage was never consummated.  

Meantime, updates on other inquiry issues noted in Friday’s press release – urban search and rescue, OPP incident-command training, and helping municipalities handle media during emergencies – are equally vague.

It’s interesting, though, that there appears to be more focus on managing the message than managing the emergency.
Written by Beth McKay
Sweat runs down my back and my face is clammy with condensation inside my mask. My jeans stick to my legs, and I’m pretty sure the curls I had put in my hair (only an hour before) have melted into slick strands from the heat.

No, I’m nowhere near a fire. Rather, I’m literally lying motionless on a floor in full PPE simulating a dummy while the real pros run through extrication techniques. As I watch them, I also fixate on something making a short-winded Darth Vader sound – and I soon realize that the familiar villain’s trademark is actually coming out of my own air mask. I then become increasingly aware of just how much gear is strapped to me, restricting my movements, and I turn my attention to how I’m going to stand up.

My typical Saturday morning does not usually begin this way, but this isn’t just any Saturday. It’s Training Day at FESTI, and even with rain in the forecast nearly a hundred participants have arrived before the sun is even up.

I was placed in the firefighter survival course for a full day of training, and I am still blown away at the disposition of both volunteer and career firefighters. Though these training drills are likely routine, they are not easy, especially for a rookie like myself.

I followed one firefighter into a two level follow-the-hose simulation. Both of us on oxygen and his face covered with a balaclava to replicate black-out conditions. I declined this added effect, but still crawled on hands and knees behind him as he swept around the low-ceilinged room, manoeuvred down a ladder (gracefully I might add) and still continued to ask me, the one who could see, if I was alright.

Later, I crawled through a wooden box with hundreds of wires and cords draped through it designed to snag participants. Trying not to look in any direction but the box’s exit, I distracted myself by thinking that this box of cords might make a great game – something along the lines of an amped up Twister that you could play with friends (I host great parties…). Then I got a little tangled, and it hit me; this type of seriously sticky situation can actually happen, but with fire and smoke looming around the corner. Throw in the possibility that the firefighter may also be low on oxygen, injured or unable to get free and it’s enough to send anyone into a panic. Ditching my interactive game making goals, I pulled myself out of the box and emerged with a heightened awareness of what these people may endure on any given day.

I watched as my group blindly crawled through a maze blockaded with furniture, a trap door and low hanging wires. I observed teams of two calmly working together to find their oxygen packs inside a series of metal cages. Drenched in sweat, these guys did not run to the exit to breath fresh air when the task was complete, and instead were eager to review what they could improve upon in the future.

I’ve found that completing detailed work in heavy gear by coupling patience with brute force is a far from glamorous job, and not something that everyone is able to do. I quickly learned that a willing personality will only get you so far in this business, especially if you’re a lanky writer, with minor claustrophobia, who’s idea of exercise is a walk around the block.

Appreciation is an understatement, but also a word I didn’t realize could mean so much. 
Written by Laura King
Sept. 13, 2016, Thunder Bay, Ont. – What always strikes me at firefighter training weekends is the desire of the participants to learn – for the most part, they are volunteers who take vacation days, cover their own registration and drive for hours, no expenses paid.

But while the focus at FireCon Friday and Saturday was hands-on-training for firefighters, talk in meeting rooms and hallways was equally enlightening.

Mentions of training to the “gold standard,” a now ubiquitous phrase used by the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association in a battle over staffing in Sault Ste. Marie; the absence of the fire marshal at the premier training event in the northwest; the lack of action by the OFM on recommendations from a fire-fatalities inquest; the OPFFA’s firefighter-paramedic proposal, and an upcoming “minister’s table” consultation process; adequacy standards; the separation (after only a brief union) of the offices of the fire marshal and emergency management – all fodder for discussion and debate.

While Fire Marshal Ross Nichols’ absence due to the Canadian Fallen Firefighter Foundation memorial in Ottawa was excused by some (the OFMEM hosted the weekend), the span between Thursday’s FireCon opening and weekend events in Ottawa was noted by others.

That the OFMEM sent Al Suleman, director/deputy of prevention and risk management, was nice – Suleman is personable and extremely knowledgeable – but the decision was perceived by some of the 250 FireCon participants to mean that the needs and concerns of the northwest’s fire services are secondary.

Suleman’s presentation Friday morning to delegates in the FireCon leadership track was thorough. Among other things, Suleman outlined inquest recommendations from May that have yet to be considered (there will be more information in a month or so, he said); and he explained the rationale for the short-lived marriage of the offices of the fire marshal and emergency management that occurred with considerable bureaucratic fanfare in 2013.

“It ended up diluting both the fire side and the EMO side,” Suleman said. “Emergency management and fire are distinct.”

Hence the ongoing reorganization – the reorganization of the reorganization – at the OFMEM that has seemingly been the focus of the office rather than the provision of “leadership and expertise in the reduction and elimination” of hazards to public safety, as is its mandate.

“We’ve made some adjustments to the org[anizational] chart,” Suleman said, “with dedicated business lines for emergency management and for fire.”

Suleman noted that Fire Marshal Nichols, who has been seconded from the Ontario Provincial Police and who declared in May that he would happily continue for another year as interim fire marshal, has had his contract extended for six months while the province looks for a full-time replacement – which makes one wonder what the powers that be have been doing about that for last year.

While the politics of fire-service delivery in Ontario was the topic of much after-hours discussion in Thunder Bay, there’s no doubt many FireCon delegates were oblivious to the banter, focused instead on training in public ed, auto and big-rig extrication, firefighter survival, search and rescue, propane fires, training-officer development and SCBA/PPE proficiency.

Their frustration is more likely to be founded in the lack of available and accessible funding, training and testing – mind you there are ongoing efforts by several agencies and others to improve all of those.

Still, it’s rather a bitter pill to swallow for volunteers who take vacation days, cover their own registration and drive for hours, no expenses paid.
Written by Laura King
Aug. 30 2016, Toronto – Talk about a hornet’s nest. If you haven’t been following, the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) is upset about a plan in Sault Ste. Marie to reduce the number of front-line, municipal firefighters by 20 over three years (that’s 25 per cent), through attrition, and increase the number of paramedics, given the volume of medical calls.
Written by Laura King
July 5, 2015, Toronto – Finally! After nine years of attending conferences from coast to coast, members of the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association (MFCA) meet next week . . . in my home town, Sydney, N.S.

It's a semi family affair: my cousin is the deputy chief of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality Fire Service, my sister's brother in law (or my brother in law's brother) is the chief of the neighbouring volunteer Glace Bay Fire Department; the deputy fire marshal (who is also the parade marshal for Sunday's memorial march) learned fire investigating from . . . my dad, who, through his lengthy insurance-adjusting career, knows pretty much everyone who has anything to do with fire.

What's more, the late Edna DeSanctis – an amazing and extremely smart woman who was the longtime secretary for the Fire Services Association of Nova Scotia, also helped the MFCA; and she worked at D.M. King Adjusters Ltd. for a very long time.

It's a family affair in another way, too. Fire Fighting in Canada writers Vince MacKenzie and Tom DeSorcy and I are presenting Volunteer Vision-Live! next Wednesday, and Steve Kraft (a former FFIC columnist) and Bob Kissner, chiefs in Richmond Hill and Kingsville, Ont., respectively, are speaking. If the speakers flop, it's all on me. Yikes! (They won't!)

The conference committee is small but mighty – led by Ian McVicar, volunteer deputy chief in Coxheath, whose infectious energy has inspired his team to embrace some extraordinary ideas; I'm sworn to secrecy so you'll have to watch Twitter to find out what Ian has up his sleeve.

The MFCA is a regional association (covering the four Atlantic provinces) so it doesn't lobby government, therefore, conferences focus on training and networking rather than political issues.

More than 150 delegates are registered, and more than 100 spouses – which makes the conference unique in that the atmosphere is more family vacation with some built-in learning – most chief officers in the region are, of course, volunteers, so the format works. The conference is also open to firefighters.

The MFCA conference was last held in Sydney long before I became editor (this is my ninth MFCA conference – Summerside x 3, Lunenburg, Pictou x 2, Fredericton, Yarmouth – I missed Gander in 2012). Having worked closely with the conference committee to add some Cape Breton colour – we've got pipers and musicians lined up, as expected – we also set out early on to focus on quality, all-Canadian education programming. A highlight will be our MFCA Unplugged roundtable/bear-pit session Monday afternoon, on the trade show floor – five panelists and a moderator (yours truly) broadcast onto the big screens in the arena at Centre 200 – the former Sydney Forum, where I spent more hours skating and watching hockey games than I did at school – packed (we hope!) with vendors and delegates.

Sydney lacks the beauty of, say, Baddeck or Ingonish – key tourism points on Cape Breton Island – but it has character. The former toxic tar ponds – from years of coal-based runoff from long decommissioned Sydney Steel Corp. – have been transformed into the fabulous and appropriately named Open Hearth Park, where the Kinsmen RibFest happens next weekend; the harbourfront has been rebuilt, with a well-used boardwalk that runs behind Sydney Station 1 and the former Royal Cape Breton Yacht Club, which fell to an arson fire in May 2013. Cruise ships are scheduled into Sydney Harbour every day of the conference, docking near the famous world's largest fiddle (like Sudbury's nickel or Duncan, B.C.'s, big hockey stick), adding a bit of a buzz to the week.

The weather, on the other hand, according to Environment Canada's 14-day outlook, is as expected in early July: high teens, a mix of sun and cloud (quite a contrast to this week's heat wave in Toronto).

It doesn't matter – a well planned conference (by a great team of Type-A fire-service personalities) with great food, great music, and great speakers (if I do say so myself), in my home town. The trade show opens Sunday afternoon. My long-suppressed Cape Breton accent will be back by supper time.
Written by Laura King
June 24, 2016, Toronto – I was taken aback yesterday when a builder at the back of the room at the OAFC Home Fire Sprinkler Summit said the information being presented was all new to him – that he'd never heard of NFPA 13D, the standard for sprinklering residential buildings.

Residential sprinklers are, of course, optional, so I guess there's some logic to the fact that the gentleman had no clue – to put it bluntly: he had no need to know. Or so I thought.

Turns out the gentleman is the CEO of the Ontario Home Builders' Association, so given what I perceived (until yesterday) to have been fairly widespread and consistent fire-service messaging about sprinklers saving lives, it's clear that's not the case.

The point of the summit – the first in Canada – was simple: to start a conversation with the people who plan, design and build homes, and, ultimately, to improve life safety.

Analogies abounded – seat belts, hockey helmets, and, in particular, air bags, demanded by consumers to keep them safe, and, therefore, embraced by the vehicle industry: safety does sell. The challenge: how to translate that desire for safety on highways to safety at home?

Cost, or perceived cost, is a sticking point: NFPA sprinkler guru and myth buster Matt Klaus cited a mere $1.35 a square foot for residential sprinklers but ceded that's in U.S. dollars ($1.72 Canadian), and for multi-unit installations rather than single dwellings or retrofitting. Still, it's affordable – even the builders agreed with that.

More myth busting: NFPA 13D is a life-safety standard, not a property-loss standard; and residential sprinklers are different from commercial units – specifically designed to hit walls and drip down onto the myriad combustibles pushed against the four sides of any given room in a typical home, and douse a fire. Sprinklers put out fires, use far less water than a fire hose, and do much less damage.

With 100 fire deaths annually in Ontario – a recent inquest examined seven fire fatalities and recommended consultation on sprinklers – what's the hook for the builders?

Trade off. In Huntsville, for example, Fire Chief Steve Hernen – the OAFC president – said builders are buying-in, partly because they're getting something in return: higher density housing, waiving of local development charges, more appealing sub-division designs.

The key, according to Don Jolley, the fire chief in Pitt Meadows, B.C., is to normalize sprinklers as a critical part of a broader fire-protection system. A Pitt Meadows bylaw passed in 2005 requires sprinklers in most new residential construction – at an average cost, Jolley said, of $1.07 a square foot. Since then, no fire in a residential or commercial building with sprinklers in Pitt Meadows has burned beyond the object of origin; more importantly, there have been no fire deaths in any of those buildings.

No one yesterday advocated sprinklers as a replacement for efficient fire-department response. But for developers who hadn't previously seen videos of side-by-side burns or understood 15-minute rural response times, a collective light bulb seemingly came on.

There's no need, builders were told, for sprinklers in attics or garages – most fatalities happen in kitchens, family rooms and bedrooms.

But to save more lives given factors such as response times and lightweight construction, sprinklers are a necessity.

"The best builders in the world are not going to stop a smoking fire, or a fire caused by a candle or an arcing wire," Klaus said.

"I don't care how good you build the home, all I need are oxygen and an ignition source and I have a fire."

Smoke alarms work – but children, teenagers, and intoxicated adults sleep through them (builders learned this through videos yesterday), and people take out the batteries. Sprinklers, said Cynthia Ross Tustin, the fire chief in Essa Township and summit chair, are simply plumbing – nothing for builders to fear.

Still, as Fire Marshal Ross Nichols told summit participants first thing yesterday morning, change does not come easily.

So, then, how to sell safety, and sprinklers, and how to get consumers to buy-in?

Ask media strategist Jay Acunzo. Facts and stats are fine, Acunzo said in a presentation about effective messaging, but neither resonates emotionally with homeowners.

Essentially, Acunzo said, stop selling sprinklers and sell life safety: hit home buyers in the heart. Be creative.

That's a leap for fire-service personnel used to neat stats and facts. But it's clearly necessary, given the wide-eyed builders in the room yesterday.

Not to give away Acunzo's shtick, but if you haven't seen it (and need a distraction on a Friday!), Google "Dumb Ways to Die" and watch the YouTube video (or click here). The award-winning Australian public-service announcement for Metro Trains Melbourne is brilliant, different, memorable, and unexpected (apologies – you'll be humming the tune all day!).

As Chief Jolley said after the summit wrapped up Thursday afternoon, it'll take time for a para-military organization that generally suppresses creativity to embrace new ideas.

Maybe so, but a preventable house fire is, indeed, a dumb way to die.
Written by Laura King
June 14, 2016, Toronto – The news out of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) conference in Collingwood yesterday – that the province will review the union’s firefighter/primary-care paramedic proposal – is not surprising to those who’ve been paying attention. But it sure hit a nerve.
Written by Laura King
May 19, 2016, Toronto – First responders in all provinces except Ontario will have access to an NFPA training package to help them handle collisions and extrications involving alternatively fuelled vehicles, under a partnership with fire marshals' offices across the country.

The NFPA announced the partnership May 10, a week before the Ontario government on Tuesday committed $7 billion for a climate-change plan that includes rebates for drivers of electric vehicles.

The Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) confirmed Wednesday that it does not have the necessary funding to buy the licence to sign on to the NFPA program. All other provinces and territories are contributing up to $100,000 each and providing the training free of charge to firefighters and other responders.

"The OFMEM is currently looking at other options, including potential partnerships, in furtherance of funding for the NFPA program," said the OFMEM's Tony Pacheco, assistant deputy fire marshal and executive officer, in an email.

If my understanding is correct, the partnership had been in the works for a considerable time, and, in fact, had been supported by the OFMEM and previous Ontario fire marshal Ted Wieclawek.

That the country's most populous province, with, logically, the highest volume of alternatively fuelled vehicles, found $7 billion to fund its 57-page Climate Change Action Plan but failed to ante up $100,000 to teach responders to safely rescue motorists from collisions is vexing, yet typical.

Firefighter training, it seems, is low on the province's priority list, the government seemingly more interested in investigations and enforcing its rules and regulations than ensuring responder safety by developing solid and affordable programming at the Ontario Fire College.

Which is rather incongruous given that under provincial occupational health and safety legislation, firefighters and others are prohibited from responding to incidents for which they have not been properly trained.

Already some fire departments are reviewing auto-ex responses on provincial highways given the imbalance between the cost of sending firefighters to the scene, and the reimbursement from the government.

(Not to mention the state of flux at the OFMEM: as interim Fire Marshal Ross Nichols told fire chiefs in Toronto two weeks ago, frustration with government inaction on long-promised fire-service initiatives – changes to the provincial incident management system, more public education, improved standards – is mounting.)

While Pacheco said dangers and common principles of electric vehicles are discussed in other training – NFPA 1001 and 1033, the fire investigator course –there is no dedicated program.

Indeed, the NFPA and the council of fire marshals noted in their press release that the federal-government co-ordinated document, Electric Vehicle Technology Roadmap for Canada, highlights the necessity for training.

"Emergency responders need training on EVs to ensure they execute their duties in a safe and timely manner," the report says. "They need to know how to deal with high-voltage batteries and flows of electricity within vehicles in order to safely extricate victims at times of collisions."

Nova Scotia Fire Marshal Harold Pothier, who is the president of the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners, said in an interview Wednesday the electric, hybrid and fuel-cell vehicle safety program should roll out in most regions at the end of the summer or in early fall.

According to the release, career and volunteer firefighters, police, emergency medical services, tow truck operators and other first responders will have access to train-the-trainer and in-classroom sessions, resources, and emergency field guides that explain how to handle AFV incidents on-scene.

Except those in Ontario.
Written by Laura King
May 9, 2016, Grande Prairie, Alta. – It was remarkably fitting that as we approached the fire hall in Sexsmith, Alta., Saturday afternoon, our last stop before our departure point in Grande Prairie after three days at Northern HEAT in Peace River, the Answer the Call recruitment logo appeared, prominently placed on the east side of the building.

Because that's what's happening here in Wild Rose Country: firefighters, mostly volunteers, are being dispatched to Fort McMurray and other burning areas of the province, answering the call to help fight a seemingly unstoppable blaze.

Our driver, Sexsmith Capt. Chris Welsh, had the Answer the Call logo – the province-wide campaign that goes national in September through the CAFC – made into an outdoor sign for a recruitment drive a year ago and opted to keep it up, despite a waiting list to get on the department, a reminder of the role volunteers play in the community of just 2,400.

The three-bay hall, a decades old white, wooden building that's being replaced next year at a site a couple of blocks away, sits on a corner by a blacksmith museum, dwarfed by the town's grain elevator out back.

To say that Welsh, who drove fellow Northern HEAT speaker Peter Van Dorpe, the chief in Algonquin-Lake in the Hills, Illinois, and me to and from Peace River, are proud of their department is an understatement: all 20-plus volunteers – average age around 25 – are NFPA 1001 certified.

Sexsmith is part of the County of Grande Prairie; firefighters from these parts and elsewhere in the province have shuttled back and forth to Fort Mac over the last several days; others were dispatched to High Level, where Fire Chief Rodney Schmidt needed reinforcements to battle a massive lumber-mill fire, the burning wood piles 80 feet high, 60 feet wide and a mile long and threatening to spread (the massive Norbord building saved by firefighters.)

Schmidt, the president of the Peace Regional Fire Chiefs Association, arrived back at Northern HEAT Saturday afternoon, having been called home on Wednesday in the middle of flashover training, the mill fire still burning but in good hands under incident commander Trevor Grant, High Level's former deputy, now a deputy with the County of Grande Prairie.

At that point Saturday, 70 firefighters from 12 departments – Grande Prairie city and county, Grande Cache, Slave Lake and others – worked the mill blaze, all brought in under the Northwest Alberta emergency resourcing agreement drawn up by area chiefs and, so far, including 27 municipalities.

The agreement was born of a wildfire that threatened High Level last year, to simplify the process of requesting resources from other departments while ensuring that all municipalities remain properly staffed, costs are properly (and fairly) allocated and personnel are properly rotated.

Even after the Slave Lake fire in 2011, the province has yet to develop a municipal resourcing inventory, Schmitdt explained, although the Calgary Emergency Management Agency recently set up a portal for that purpose. Peace region chiefs, however, have established their own system along with the resourcing agreement, relying on each for support, equipment and manpower, keenly aware of the need to access additional trucks and personnel during emergencies and having the necessary legalities in place to do so quickly and efficiently.

The run to High Level – not far from the Northwest Territories border – from Peace River is 300 kilometres. Grande Prairie is 200 kilometres south, Slave Lake 240 kilometres. Fort McMurray is almost 700 kilometres away.

The more than 100 firefighters here, from the likes of Loon River, High Prairie, Fort Vermillion, Fairview, Nampa, Wembley, Whitecourt, Peerless Trout First Nation, St. Isador Three Creeks, High Level, La Crete and Grande Prairie, think no more of hopping in their pickups – or driving aerial trucks hundreds of kilometres – to help a fellow department than they do of going to practice on Tuesday nights or spending vacation time training at Northern HEAT.

They have answered the call.


View a Facebook gallery of photos from Northern HEAT.

Written by Laura King
May 6, 2016, Peace River, Alta. - The Northern HEAT – (Hands-on Education Awareness Training) conference here is a wonderful event – and this year held coincidental to a horrific backdrop of the carnage of wildfire.

This is my second conference in less than a week and the contrasts are stark and illuminating.

Twenty-four hours ago I could see the CN Tower. This morning I smell wildfires in northern Alberta – the other side of fire fighting. We may be a country of densely populated urban centres, but Mother Nature can still deliver cruel reminders about who is really in charge.

The deputy chief for the County of Grande Prairie Regional Fire Service, Dan Verdun, was to pick up some of the conference speakers at the airport yesterday. He is in Fort McMurray.

The president of the Peace Regional Fire Chiefs Association, High Level Chief Rodney Schmidt, was instructing flashover training earlier this week when he got a call, jumped in his truck and headed north, lights and sirens flashing – an industrial/wildfire threatening his community.

Handfuls of firefighters from departments in the region have been dispatched to Fort MacMurray or High Level, everyone being careful to ensure there are enough resources left at home to provide proper coverage in this volatile, tinder-dry province.

Driving north to Peace River from Grande Prairie last evening, up Highway 2 and through the stunning river valley with Capt. Chris Welsh and firefighter Craig Rees from Sexmith, smoke from a fire in Fort St. John, B.C., blanketed the setting sun, ash in the air when we got out of the Tahoe.

There may, depending how things go today, be more conference speakers here than delegates. But as Schmidt said when I emailed him to check on the conference status, the show must go on.

And for good reason.

Conferences and trade shows like this are the venue for the intellectual cross pollination that educates and informs the fire service.

My email in box is full of notes from the likes of Jamie Coutts, chief for the Lesser Slave Lake Regional Fire Service, who, needless to say, was in Fort Mac helping out earlier this week. He has seen this movie and his institutional knowledge from his community's experience in invaluable. He has spent a lot of nights in bad hotels travelling Canada and sharing his story since 2011.

Lou Wilde, assistant chief in Kelowna who fought the devastating wildfires there in 2003 and 2009, messaged me last night, asking to give Fort McMurray Chief Darby Allen his best.

Coutts and Wilde know the horror that Allen is living; everyone here is praising the chief's leadership, calm, and authority.

The magnitude of the blaze enveloping Fort McMurray is mindboggling. Reading story after story about the fire while waiting for the flight to Grande Prairie, a Canadian Press report put things in perspective: at 850 square kilometres – and having grown nine times in size since Wednesday – the flames have consumed an area the size of Calgary, where I happened to be sitting in the airport.

This is not new for Alberta. Three years ago when I was in Peace River, a handful of chief officers met to develop a response team similar to those south of the border that deploy to fires too big for local agencies to handle. There was talk of cross training more municipal/structural firefighters and wildland teams to better understand the urban interface, and subject-matter experts (logistics, for example) who could descend on a stricken community and relieve local fire personnel so they could look after their families with clear heads, knowing others were handling the incident.

What struck me, at the time, was the commitment of the group of chief officers in the room – at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night – and their knowledge that the likes of Slave Lake, or worse, was not a possibility, but a given. The institutional memory and the transfer of knowledge among those involved is deep and deliberate: most had been to Slave Lake and were keenly aware that their communities are vulnerable to the winds and climate conditions that whipped the 2011 fire into a frightening frenzy.

After consecutive record wildfire seasons in western Canada, a significant portion of Alberta is burning, so early in the year – 49 separate wildfires as of Thursday night – and BMO Capital Markets says the Fort McMurray blaze alone is "by far the largest potential catastrophe loss in Canadian history."

Having lived in Edmonton in the early 1990s, smoke wafting south from wildfires in the north was common, just rarely in May.

But as fire-and-weather specialist David Moseley, explained in Fire Fighting in Canada in April 2015, May is the most dangerous month.

"There are two weather conditions that are part of the equation," Moseley wrote. "The first is crossover, when the temperature in degrees Celsius is more than the relative humidity expressed as a percentage. The second weather condition is high wind." All that, and the perfect storm of El Nino, a mild winter and little snow.

And as Chief Coutts said in our Fire Fighting in Canada This Week newscast two weeks ago, watch the conditions, not the calendar.

That's why conferences like this matter. As sure as Slave Lake learned from Kelowna and Fort McMurray from Slave Lake, so, too, Fort Mac will build become template for success in the face of horror somewhere else.

Writing last night from 15,000 feet up, on a northbound Air Canada Bombardier Dash 8-300, it was difficult to fathom that the snowcapped Rockies to the west glistening in the evening sun, and the spectacular river valleys below, are complicit in Mother Nature's caldron of disaster.

Conferences like this are the connective tissue of the Canadian fire service. This is where people learn and share and prepare for a day they hope never comes.

The backdrop is smokey and real. If that lends an urgency to the learning in the next 48 hours, so much the better.

But the show must go on.
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