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Fully Engaged: January 2012

Another new year is upon us. I’ve always liked this time of the year, if only for the sense of new beginning – a new page, a fresh start.

January 6, 2012
By Ken Sheridan

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Another new year is upon us. I’ve always liked this time of the year, if only for the sense of new beginning – a new page, a fresh start. But before opening this new chapter in a year that I hope leads to change, we should look at the past, both recent and distant.

Fire has always been a blessing and a curse to nature and humanity. Historically, fire has been one of society’s biggest concerns, but now there are bigger issues – terrorism, wars, environment, climate change. Ironically, the fire problems of yesteryear are not that much different than they are today. We’ve made significant strides over time and have done a good job saving countless lives though education and code enforcement. Perhaps all that has changed is the amount of money we have to mitigate such problems.

Many years ago, in some cities in England and in early America, there were stiff penalties for contraventions to fire-prevention ordinances or regulations. Before that, in Rome, some paid the ultimate price for setting fires – public execution by burning alive tied to a post.

In an effort to control the fire issue, cities employed fire wardens to patrol the streets and conduct basic inspections trying to prevent fire. It was not uncommon to have entire blocks, or even a town, consumed by a preventable fire.

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History has recorded many such events. Many of those notable fires in the last 300 years have shaped today’s fire codes. One such historic event was the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which burned for two days, killed hundreds and destroyed 10 square kilometres. From this incident, fire prevention week was born. More recent fires in nightclubs, theatres and highrise buildings have highlighted these issues for today’s fire service.

Why is it that fire prevention still fights for recognition and funding? Have we made any progress? Have our circumstances improved? Have we, as a society, settled into a status-quo with the eerie sound of apathy? There seems to be too many obstacles in the way of progress. We can no longer tolerate a society that has not yet aggressively attacked its fire-prevention problem.

A few months ago I had the privilege of hearing former United States vice-president Al Gore speak. Mr. Gore is, among other things, chairman of The Climate Reality Project, a non-profit organization focused on solutions to the climate crisis. He is an amazing speaker and offers a compelling presentation about what he believes to be a critical global situation. He seems totally dedicated to getting his message out and to educating citizens around the world about what he refers to an imminent predicament.

The fact is that data indicate changes in temperatures around the world, which is having an effect on everything from polar ice to rainforest eco systems. Whether you subscribe to any of the theories surrounding global climate change is not the point. The point is that there is an incredible message being spread by a credible messenger. I have to admit, I was skeptical going to hear an ex-politician ramble on for what I’m sure was a significant amount of money, about a topic on which scholars worldwide have myriad opinions. Gore could practically say anything he wants and people would listen. To have that kind of influence would be incredible.

I would never have gone had a friend not offered me a free ticket. But I’m sure glad I did. Mr. Gore got my attention in a fashion that was non-offensive and extremely passionate. I found myself standing at the conclusion of his speech with everyone else in the 5,000-seat room, for no other reason than the quality of the content and the delivery of the speech.

My conclusion to all these observations can be summed up in a quote by Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So, I’m not sure if we are insane or just haven’t figured out how to get a different result yet – results that would mean all members of fire service embrace fire prevention and public education. I’m speaking in a general way and not just to a single group within our profession; it just seems we are not where would should be. But everyone – from politicians to the fire service – has to take responsibility for coming up with a better plan for fire prevention and public education.

To our own defence, politics plays an enormous part in all of this. Elected officials whether provincial (territorial) or municipal, tend to get in the way of what we see as clearly visible, and they present ways to cloud things and issues that were very clear to us from the beginning. Some might say that’s a good thing because it helps to keep spending in balance. But that shouldn’t happen at the expense of doing the right thing. If doing what ought to be done does not get funding, we have to convince the decision makers that our cause is their safety.

Waiting for incidents of mass casualties is not the answer. It has been proven that what is happening is not working and not enough is being done. Financial resources will help, but attitude is the real fix to this problem. There is plenty of money, but the deficiency is where it’s being spent.

At the end of his presentation, Mr. Gore said – perhaps tongue in cheek – that one of the things that holds society back from aggressive intervention on the climate issue is politicians, but they too are a renewable resource. I agree.


Ken Sheridan is captain of fire prevention in Norfolk County, Ont. He is a certified fire prevention officer and certified fire and life safety educator for the Province of Ontario. He is a graduate of the Dalhousie University fire administration program and has more than 21 years in fire suppression and fire prevention. Contact him at ken.sheridan@norfolkcounty.ca


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