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.
Rather, this time – Nichols’ third presentation to OAFC members since taking office in October 2015 – the fire marshal provided fulsome details about the reorganization of the reorganization of the offices of the fire marshal and emergency management, but offered little about programming.
The two offices, of course, were merged in August 2013, then earlier this year, un-merged, or disentangled, as Nichols said; a union that was well intentioned, he noted, but not well executed.
That things are creeping forward at the speed of government is clear, but they are, indeed, inching along.
Nichols was given an hour to speak; he used fewer than 40 minutes to review changes at the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) – including the re-hiring some former EMO staff. (Although once again there was little information about the status of the review of the provincial incident management system, save a PowerPoint slide that said details will come later.)
And then, to a very attentive audience, Nichols announced that his job – an interim appointment that had twice been extended – will be posted at the end of December and he will return to the Ontario Provincial Police, from which he had been seconded after former fire marshal Ted Wieclawek left.
There was one innocuous question from a conference delegate, one compliment – from Mississauga Chief Tim Beckett who thoroughly utilized OFMEM resources after a house explosion in June, a polite round of applause – and that was that.
Whether chiefs – or, perhaps, which chiefs – in the room for the OAFC mid-term meeting are polishing their resumes for, in most cases, a lower-paying and far-more stressful but also higher-profile job – is certain to be the topic of much speculation.
So, where do things stand?
There’s a new director of emergency management – Mike Morton, who left EMO five years ago and has returned – and two new deputies. There are several jobs to fill on both the fire and emergency-management sides – although Nichols said that after talking to some chiefs Tuesday evening about the logic of hiring of eight new regional advisors, there may be changes.
“We think we know what you need,” Nichols told fire chiefs. “Clearly we don’t all the time.”
There’s a minister’s fire safety technical table coming up that will “address new and emerging challenges in fire-safety delivery.”
There will be a provincial emergency-management conference in 2017, focusing on climate change.
There will be new, online avenues through which public education resources will be delivered to departments – although the way I understand it there will be no new public ed courses offered at or though the Ontario Fire College, much to the frustration of those whose job it is to educate the public.
There are more regional training centres coming online, there’s a provincial nuclear emergency response plan review happening, and there’s a new transportation of radioactive-materials awareness package.
Ontario’s IMS 300 course has been revised with new tabletop exercises, and consultation about IMS 400 (which doesn’t yet exist in Ontario) has indicated a preference for operationally based rather than theory-based learning.
There are other issues: legalization of marijuana; streamlining municipal inspections; tall-wood guidelines; and the recommendations from a fire-fatality inquest. Lots of work to do.
Priorities for 2017? To fine tune the reorganization of the reorganization, to improve communication, to develop short- and longer-term strategic plans, and to enhance provincial operational capacity while also supporting development of community response capacity.
Nichols apologized for not replying to emails and urged chiefs to email him again, and again, and again if necessary.
“Communication is important,” Nichols said. “It may be better than it was, but we’ve got a ways to go.”
Good luck to his successor.