Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Editor’s blog

Laura King   

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Sept. 16, 2014, Ottawa – I was skeptical about yesterday morning’s opening panel at the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs conference hosted by TSN’s Michael Landsberg, whose program Off the Record has run on the network for 16 years.

Sept. 16, 2014, Ottawa – I was skeptical about yesterday morning’s opening panel at the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs conference hosted by TSN’s Michael Landsberg, whose program Off the Record has run on the network for 16 years.

Skeptical about a television personality trying to entertain a bunch of fire officers at 8:30 on a Monday morning (please, please don’t say, “You guys run into burning buildings when everyone else goes out.” If I had a nickel . . . ); skeptical about the topic – mental illness – as an opener, and the clam-up effect of such a sensitive and serious subject; skeptical about the panel format that was rather last minute.

Landsberg is a professional. To mimic the OTR format, he brought fire chiefs Vince MacKenzie from Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L., Tom DeSorcy from Hope. B.C., Paul Boissonneault from Brant County, Ont., and Linda Masson from Airdrie, Alta., on stage to discuss and debate topics ranging from renaming the Redskins to concussions in sport and the onus on owners/employers to do everything possible to protect players/workers. That elicited a bit of a response!

Landsberg had introduced the session by outlining his experience with depression, an awkward subject in a room full of fire chiefs, I thought.


When Landsberg asked for a show of hands by those who have experienced depression, there was a smattering of a response. Later, more hands went up. When Kingston, Ont., Chief Rheaume Chaput said his department experienced a firefighter suicide four years ago and asked how many in the room had been through similar circumstances, a dozen hands went up. And the room was briefly silent.

“Thank you,” Landsberg said, “for making that awful point. It’s a huge problem.”

Over 10 weeks this spring and summer, 13 Canadian first responders killed themselves. I won’t spout more statistics – they’re easy to find on Google.

This edition of the CAFC’s Fire-Rescue Canada conference is called Taking Care of Business (you sang it out loud, didn’t you?)

It’s time to take care of that business.

I rushed into a session Monday afternoon on recruitment and retention with Peter Kirch, the chief in Camrose, Alta., because I knew it would be worthwhile, having met Kirch at the Alberta chiefs conference in Grande Prairie in June.

Four years ago the Alberta Association of Fire Chiefs tackled recruitment and retention head on with a sweeping report; words first, now action. Around that time, the fire department in Wandering River shut down. It was staffed by women, who were home during the day and available to respond. But the volume of MVC calls to a busy and treacherous stretch of highway on the way to Fort McMurray was too much and, eventually – after considerable pressure – the Alberta government created a rescue team to respond.

That solved one problem, but Alberta still has recruitment issues, particularly in the north. So the AFCA – with the help of a marketing company – has developed a media campaign that’s so simple it’s brilliant. The slogan? Answer the call. The logo? A stylized firefighter with an axe. The message? Anyone can be a volunteer firefighter – a painter, a welder, a business owner, a foreman, a cattle rancher, a project manager. The tools? Banners, posters, radio ads, TV commercials. The artwork shows typical Albertans wearing bunker gear on the left and their regular work clothes on the right, the Answer the call logo, and the AFCA website. Simple. Brilliant.

The video, which was produced professionally and cost a bit of money, Kirch said, sent shivers down my spine when I saw it Monday afternoon (you can see it at – click on Tell Us Your Story on the right).

Provincial fire chiefs association presidents who were in the room for Kirch’s presentation were blown away. Kirch had presented to the CAFC executive on the weekend and the chatter in the room yesterday centered on adopting Alberta’s strategy nationally – the AFCA has already done all the heavy lifting so why reinvent the wheel given that all provinces have volunteer recruitment issues? The AFCA, Kirch said, is happy to share. Imagine fire services in the nine other provinces and three territories adopting a program created in Alberta and simply changing the province name on all the media tools.

Simple, and brilliant.

As many readers know, I came directly to Ottawa for the CAFC conference from Thunder Bay, where I watched, listened and learned at FireCon, an annual training session for (mostly) volunteer firefighters.

Although there were certainly more male than female firefighters in Thunder Bay on the weekend, there were lots of women in all the courses – mostly young women.

That’s certainly not the case here in the nation’s capital. I know; different conference, different demographic. The women here are hoping to change that – or at least even the balance a bit.

Rhoda-May Kerr is here – she’s the chief in Austin, Texas, and the first vice-president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs – the first woman to hold that office. Susan Jones is here – she’s the director of emergency and protective services here in Ottawa. Gerta Groothuizen is here – the deputy chief/prevention in Yellowknife. Deputy Chief Masson is here from Airdrie. Carol-Lynn Chambers is here, president of Fire Service Women Ontario (FSWO). Along with a couple of hundred men.

One theme of this week’s conference is diversity in fire and that features heavily on today’s agenda, starting with a session this morning called Behind the Fire Wall, The Truth About fire-service culture. Ottawa Chief John de Hooge, a big supporter of organizations such as Pride and FSWO and their initiatives, leads the panel. Panelist Karen Simpson, a former firefighter in Chatham-Kent, Ont., is now in law school and, I expect, will share her insights and experiences as a woman in a male-heavy environment. 

FSWO president Carol-Lynn Chambers talks this afternoon about diversity and inclusion and FSWO’s mandate to encourage, educate, empower young women to consider careers in fire and help them develop the tools they need to make the cut.

Wednesday’s keynote presentation by Jona Olsson, the chief in Latir, New Mexico, titled Leadership for Gender Justice in Fire and Emergency Services, promises to be interesting. I met Olsson at a conference a couple of years ago. Olsson is female, and gay. She’s was Fire Chief magazine’s 2012 volunteer chief of the year, and is founder and director of Cultural Bridges to Justice, which provides justice-issues workshops and programs for communities and non-profits. Olsson knows a thing or two about diversity, inclusion and leadership. I expect a full room.

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