May 4, 2016, Toronto – It had to have been the most humbling couple of hours interim Ontario Fire Marshal Ross Nichols has experienced since he was appointed seven months ago.
First, Nichols was grilled by the province's training officers, who are meeting during the Ontario Association of Fire Chief (OAFC) conference, their frustration with delayed projects and changes palpable and clearly vocalized.
Then, following a speech to fire chiefs by Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi in which the politician put the audience on notice that change is imminent – consistent standards, improved training, clear guidelines and more public education – Nichols, essentially, said . . . nothing.
Having been playfully warned by outgoing OAFC president Matt Pegg to refrain from using the phrase "we're working on it" in relation to myriad anticipated changes necessary to modernize the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) and its mandate, Nichols was blunt, admitting that the speed of government is excruciatingly slow and, for him – an OPP inspector seconded to fire – exceedingly frustrating.
The frustrations? Things Nichols didn't know he didn't know: that the OFMEM has 17 websites, many of them unnecessary or unworkable; that the time and energy of well-paid people put into the development of a municipal risk-assessment tool was all for naught – the OFMEM, Nichols said, should not be in the tool-making business; that there are issues with the speed of firefighter test results. "We're working on it," Nichols said. More than once.
Nichols, looking pallid under the harsh lights in the conference room at the Toronto Convention Centre and in front of more than 250 chief fire officers and public educators, asked for patience and, in a lighter moment, admonished the frustrated masses to refrain from sending emails with multiple exclamation marks, capital letters and threats to carbon copy Naqvi and Deputy Minister Matthew Torrigian. Nichols will, he said, reply to emails and phone calls but, in not so many words, urged everyone to grow up and play nicely together in the sandbox.
Nichols, who was likely a good cop but by his own admission is far from an exceptional orator, started well, hauling his 72-hour emergency-preparedness kit to the stage, this being Emergency Preparedness Week. There were chuckles, and even some sympathy among chief officers after the 30-minute speech, of the challenges of fixing an inherited system just as the move to NFPA standards from the Ontario curriculum occurred, and with internal personnel issues and longstanding and complex challenges such as the Northern Fire Protection Program (the NFPP website was closed for maintenance when I checked it this morning). There is, Nichols said, "a working group looking at what's needed in the north."
Others were less kind afterwards, questioning the lack of a single announcement in what was undoubtedly a highly anticipated presentation – no update, for example, of the review of the provincial incident management system, recommended in the Elliot Lake Commission of Inquiry in October 2015.
There was mention of the changes at the Ontario Fire College and credit given to principal Carol-Lynn Chambers for Herculean efforts to revamp the institution, but also acknowledgement of slow progress, stalled by government bureaucracy.
Nichols acknowledged that there will be change as a result of the recommendations announced last week at the inquest into seven fire fatalities in Ontario in 2012 and 2013 but gave no specifics.
"The inquest," Nichols said, "highlighted the value of training, standards and public education." Which the OFMEM has known for years. (Earlier, Naqvi had said the government will review the Fire Protection and Prevention Act to clarify municipal obligations of fire prevention and staff training.)
Nichols acknowledged conversations about First Nations fire protection, but again, no announcement. "Good meetings," he said.
Having roundly apologized for the snail's pace of progress, and thoroughly accepted ownership of the need to get on with things, Nichols opened the floor to questions. Unsurprisingly, given Nichols' full disclosure that there's nothing to report, there were just two – a statement rather than a question from OAFC first vice president Steve Hernen, who acknowledged the fire marshal's forthrightness but made it clear that chiefs, too, are frustrated – and a second that involved more local issues outside the purview of the OFMEM.
Hernen was elected OAFC president Wednesday afternoon.