Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Editor’s blog – FireCon and Fire-Rescue Canada

Laura King   

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Sept. 16, 2014, Thunder Bay/Ottawa - The demographics may be radically different at the FireCon training weekend and the CAFC's Fire-Rescue Canada conference, but as editor Laura King writes from Thunder Bay and Ottawa, a lot of learning, networking, and brainstorming goes on no matter where firefighters and fire officers gather.

The demographics may be radically different at the FireCon training weekend and the CAFC’s Fire-Rescue Canada conference, but as editor Laura King writes from Thunder Bay and Ottawa, a lot of learning, networking, and brainstorming goes on no matter where firefighters and fire officers gather.

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.

Check out our Facebook Gallery of photos of CAFC Fire-Rescue Canada .

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.

Sept. 14, 2014, Toronto – Talk about a snapshot of the Canadian fire service. 

I’m between flights at Pearson International Airport, waiting to go to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs conference in Ottawa, having flown from FireCon in Thunder Bay this morning.

There will be important people in Ottawa – presidents of most provincial fire chiefs associations, most of the fire marshals/commissioners from across the country, high-profile speakers. There will be hefty issues on the table – Lac-Megantic and transportation of dangerous goods, diversity in fire, recruitment and retention
There were important people in Thunder Bay too. Laura Edwards, for example, a volunteer firefighter with the Township of King – which is north of Toronto and about 1,350 kilometres from Thunder Bay. Edwards and her husband, Rudy – also a VFF with King – booked sitters for their three children, paid their own way, and spent the weekend training. Laura’s Twitter feed said it all: “I’m done, I’m done. PubEd Level 1 at #FireCon2014.”

I walked by Laura in the hallway Friday and stopped dead in my tracks when I saw her shoulder flash. “King?” I said, “You’re from King?” (Hmm, wonder why that jumped out at me?) Edwards explained on the plane today, that FireCon – the annual training weekend in northwest Ontario – is one of the few opportunities to efficiently complete the public ed course while networking with firefighters and fire-service leaders from across the province.

All 241 delegates to FireCon did exactly what the Edwards did – gave up a weekend to improve their skills, skills they voluntarily provide to their communities. The level of training at the Thunder Bay training centre yesterday – with instructors from Toronto, the Office of the Fire Marshal, Thunder Bay Fire, Texas, CP Rail – was as impressive as any I’ve seen in Toronto or Wolfville, N.S., or Peace River, Alta.

As retired Washington, D.C., chief Dennis Rubin – a keynote speaker in the leadership track in Thunder Bay – said on the flight today, FireCon is a true testament to the Canadian fire service. Like me, Rubin gets frustrated with negativity and pettiness in certain elements of the fire service; it’s refreshing, he said, to see such committed volunteers drive for miles (um, kilometres, chief!), or fly most of the way across the province, spend their own money, and give up a weekend in September to improve their skills so they can give more to their communities. Most of the firefighters in Thunder Bay were not looking to become career firefighters ­– they just want to be better firefighters.

Tim Beebe (who I know I’ve mentioned in three blogs in a row!), who was in Thunder Bay as a student rather than instructor for the first time in a long time, experienced an even more poignant moment yesterday during the positive pressure attack hands-on session. Although Tim was in the class to learn rather than instruct, he was in a group with a young, new, keen firefighter and couldn’t help but seize an opportunity to let the new kid on the nozzle. A few practices out back to get more comfortable with the hoseline, and Tim let the fella lead the attack team, with his hand on his shoulder and his voice of experience in the kid’s ear. I’m not sure who was more stoked, Tim or the young fella.

Back to FireCon. There was a two-day session in Thunder Bay on PPA/SCBA for new firefighters. I’ve seen this before – in Quinte West a few years ago; complete chaos the first time the rookies try to don their gear, but steady improvement over time and comfortable, capable men and women after a few tries with positive feedback and encouragement from instructors. It’s tough to do that in two hours on a Tuesday night.

FireCon celebrates its 25th anniversary next year and the six-person organizing team – Kenora Chief Warren Brinkman, Thunder Bay Chief John Hay, Manitouwadge Chief Owen Cranney, Atikokan Chief Garth Dyck, Neebing Chief Dale Ashbee and Rainy River Chief Gerry Armstrong – who, by times, may be short on details but are long on content and delivery! – promised this morning over breakfast that it would be bigger and better. I have no doubt that will be the case. I also think there’s a scheme afoot for a some kind of presentation on fire and media . . . hmmm, I wonder who could do that?

My flight to Ottawa – where I lived three different times for a total of 11 years ­– takes off shortly; several Fire Fighting in Canada and Canadian Firefighter writers are already there, along with sales manager Catherine Connolly, bookstore manger Becky Atkinson, vendors (many who were also in Thunder Bay) and chiefs from coast to coast to coast.

There will be no dirty bunker gear or burning pallets or expandable foam or positive pressure fans in downtown Ottawa. There will be uniforms and some pomp and circumstance, experience, networking, problem solving, planning and politicking. Quite a contrast to Laura Edwards and the young kid on the nozzle and Beebe’s ear-to-ear grin as he doffed his BA and bunker jacket, leaned against the side of the training centre in the noon-hour sun, eating a sandwich and beaming after having made some kid’s day.

A snapshot? Or a picture worth about 1,000 words?

Sept. 13, 2014, Thunder Bay – Our Fire Fighting in Canada team is fully engaged today.

I’m heading to the fire training centre here in Thunder Bay to watch and take photos of the hands-on sessions at FireCon – positive pressure attack, search and rescue, rope rescue and CP Rail emergency incidents.

Assistant editor Maria Church, sales manager Catherine Connolly, sales assistant Barb Comer and publisher Martin McAnulty are at our Firefighter Training Day at FESTI in Toronto.

Bookstore manager Becky Atkinson is en route to Ottawa for the CAFC conference, from Thunder Bay, while Jen Ludwig mans the books booth at our Career Expo, also at FESTI in Toronto.

Catherine and I head to Ottawa tonight and tomorrow respectively, to meet with writers and clients at the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs conference.

We’re often asked why we travel so much and what we get out of the myriad conferences we attend. Indeed, former FFIC writer Tim Beebe (now an instructor with the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal) asked me that yesterday.

Networking. Meeting potential writers. Understanding the differences – and similarities – between firefighting issues in Nova Scotia, northern Ontario, the Peace Region of Alberta and Vancouver Island. Promoting our brands – Fire Fighting in Canada, Canadian Firefighter and EMS Quarterly, and our bookstore. Increasing visibility. Gaining credibility.

That last one is key. I don’t write about training techniques or things for which people in the industry are certified and have learned through experience – our fire-service columnists handle those things. I write about the news and politics of fire; I write about big incidents and lessons learned – issues that after seven years I feel confident that I understand, with the help of the experts I interview for my stories.

What else? Going into the Drager simulator on Thursday here in Thunder Bay, and in Peace River in April 2013, listening to the CP Rail presentation on transportation of dangerous goods yesterday (and politely requesting – or perhaps aggressively suggesting? – that the experts in the room write a series TDG for our magazines), and listening – a lot – to the fire officers and firefighters who help us succeed by enduring our never-ending questions about techniques and issues.

We’ve got Ontario covered this weekend – from Thunder Bay in the northwest, to Toronto (I won’t say the centre of the universe – you all thought it anyway!), and Ottawa in the southeast.

And just like the fire officers and firefighters at FireCon, FESTI and the CAFC’s Fire-Rescue Canada conference, that makes us better at what we do.

Sept. 12, 2014, Thunder Bay, Ont. – So far, FireCon has lived up to its billing – friendly faces, well organized and, of course, wonderful hospitality – and I have high expectations for the rest of the weekend. Check out a Facebook gallery of my photos from FireCon here .

The annual training conference here in northwestern Ontario gets rolling this morning, with 241 delegates registered in hands-on training sessions ranging from SCBA for new firefighters to positive pressure attack.

Having never been to this neck of the woods, I sneaked a peek yesterday at Thunder Bay’s sleeping giant – the Sibley Peninsula, which, when viewed from the city, resembles a large, reclining figure – from the second floor of the North Central Fire Station; the view (from other buildings too) is being impeded by new condo buildings, which seems a shame. My university roommate was from Thunder Bay and that lounging giant stared at us for eight months from a poster on the cinder-block wall at Carleton. It looks better in real life!

I was at North Central – one of eight stations – for a fit test before joining Thunder Bay Fire’s recruit class at the department’s training centre. I had done a Drager fit test before – in Peace River in April 2013, with the entire Drager Live Fire Training Tour crew observing my inability to hold my breath and push the button on the clicker at the same time, which made for a rather lengthy procedure (and some fine entertainment for the LIFFT instructors). Fortunately, this version was supervised by training captain Marty Hynna and a Windows PC, which told me to breathe normally, then deeply, bend down and touch my toes (while not cracking one’s head on the nearby desk – a hazard in the small room and, apparently, a common occurrence among recruits), and to talk, at which point poor Marty succumbed to an interview-like barrage of questions and likely wondered what he had gotten himself into by agreeing to host a reporter/editor for the day. I passed the test (and I have the proof!) – I’m sure I scored high on the talking part! – and we headed to Thunder Bay Fire’s training centre.

The eight recruits, who are in week 14 of their 18-week training, are the first Thunder Bay recruit class to experience NFPA professional qualification rather than the Ontario standard. Ontario adopted NFPA last fall. The recruits have done live fire, so the plan was to experience rollover through the Drager fire simulator rollover prop in the basement of the department’s training tower.

We toured the prop first – noting the locations of the three emergency stop buttons, for safety, of course, but also to ensure that none of us would accidently hit one of the buttons with our cylinders; doing so shuts down the prop and requires a re-start, which takes time; longer, it seems, when a crew is pumped up. It was all I could think about as we geared up; e-stop button, left of doorway, do not hit it and be the talk of FireCon for the weekend.

You know what’s coming. First crew in – two recruits on a hoseline, me, and acting training captain Paul Heino. We crouch down in the small room with the bed pan, and wait. Muffled radio conversation between Paul and Tim in the control room. Nothing.  Still nothing. (As a trained observer, I noticed that Paul had mucked with the e-stop button when we entered the simulator behind the two recruits. It was pushed in. He pulled it out. Hmmm.) Still nothing. We go back upstairs. Masks off. “One of you hit the e-stop,” Paul said. It wasn’t me. I swear. The button had been pressed before I got into the room and there were red faces but not mine. Or maybe Paul was just being polite and not naming names?

Regardless, Tim got the simulator powered up and with the recruits on the hoseline, I witnessed several rollovers – and the challenge of releasing quick bursts of water in a tight space – and got some great photos.

All that time crouched down in the simulator in my still-a-bit-stiff but fabulous Globe gear (have I mentioned the awesome camo liner?) and boots, led to some burning quad muscles, which led to a minor injury, which led to ice packs and advice back at the conference hotel over lunch with a group of well-meaning fire officers – 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off, bend it, stretch it, walk it out, don’t walk it out, ibuprofen, more ice, more ice, more ice. The swelling has gone down and I’m good to go today. But no crouching and I’m staying away from emergency stop buttons.

All this happened before the opening ceremony and trade show last evening, at which I was delighted to run into former FFIC blogger and columnist Tim Beebe, who now works as an instructor for the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management – and whose writing arm is hurting from the twisting . . . stay tuned!

Courses are full and there are firefighters here from parts of northern Ontario I’ve never heard of but will know more about by the end of the weekend. My expectations are high, but so is the standard here in Thunder Bay.

Sept. 9, 2014, Toronto – For years, organizers of the largest firefighter training weekend in northwestern Ontario have been asking me to come to Thunder Bay and cover FireCon. I will, they have assured me, be impressed – by the training, the instructors, the committed volunteer firefighters who give up a weekend each September to improve their skills.

I leave tomorrow.

FireCon is, I believe, similar to FDIC Atlantic – an annual weekend of (mostly volunteer) firefighter training in Wolfville, N.S. – but with more hands-on sessions thanks to greater resources and backing from the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal.

Like the Mira Road Volunteer Fire Department in Nova Scotia, which I visited a few weeks ago and which operates under the auspices of the Cape Breton Regional Fire Service but does its own fundraising, most of the departments that send members to FireCon for training are essentially two entities – the fire department itself, and the local firefighters associations, or society.

As former columnist and blogger Tim Beebe – who used to be the chief in tiny Upsala, Ont., and is now an instructor with the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) – patiently explained to me by email:

“The fire department was created by agreement with the OFMEM. The association was the fundraising entity.

“It eventually became a not-for-profit organization run by an elected board and responsible for the business part of the operation. When a local service board (LSB) was established to collect tax funds, the association contracted its services to the LSB.”

Further, Beebe, said, there are different models, depending on geography, among other things.

“One more common model is the small, municipal department. Council funds the day-to-day operations and the association raises funds for equipment and other things the municipality can’t or fund – even trucks sometimes. The previous models I talked about were unorganized communities with no municipal council.”

So, essentially, although many of these departments are supported by the OFMEM and municipal councils where they exist (some tiny, rural departments in remote areas, therefore, do not benefit from municipal support), it’s up to the firefighters – the volunteer firefighters – to make them sustainable.

As one fire chief from British Columbia who taught at FireCon a few years ago said to me last week, “I was gobsmacked at the number of tiny fire departments up there with incredibly committed members that operate as societies. Their need for fundraising, just to remain operational, really struck me.” He’s right.

Which is why it’s so frustrating when career firefighters get their station pants in a knot over training schedules and the 24-hour shift. Different issues, sure, but it still annoys me.

Regardless, my bags – including my fabulous Globe gear with the funky camo liner that is the envy of all who see it! – are just about packed for Thunder Bay and a long weekend of training, learning, and possibly some socializing.

I will, I’m sure, be impressed.

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