Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Fully Engaged: October 2013

By Ken Sheridan   

Features Hot Topics Prevention

Earlier this year, the National Geographic channel aired a six-part documentary, titled Inside Combat Rescue.

Earlier this year, the National Geographic channel aired a six-part documentary, titled Inside Combat Rescue. It featured United States para-rescuemen performing combat rescue operations based out of the Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan. The series captured the most graphic realities of war.

These specialized operatives’ main task is to rescue wounded allied soldiers and civilians from combat situations in which the United States is involved. Basically, these para-rescuemen fly into war zones, parachute, rappel or land, recover the injured, provide pre-hospital care and evacuate patients to a nearby military hospital. These heroes are risking their lives so that others may live.

That others may live is actually the motto of this elite squad, also known as para-rescue jumpers, or PJs.

Regardless of your perspective on war, these airmen put it all on the line to save others in need. Does this sound familiar?


What I really like is the mantra, that others may live. This truly speaks to these guys’ commitment to putting themselves in danger to save another.

Over the last two years, I have written about fire prevention and, more specifically, public fire-safety education. As the fire service continues to evolve, we can look at models around the world that may help us to improve our fire-loss records. Countries such as Switzerland and other western European nations that are world leaders in fire safety must have something we don’t. Why do the United States and Canada have the highest fire death rates in the industrialized world when we appear to be so safety conscious?

A May 1997 report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the United States Fire Administration, titled Fire Death Rate Trends: An International Perspective, and a subsequent, similar report in July 2011, clearly shows the death rates compared to several other industrialized countries. I think the report is very clear in determining which countries are doing well in terms of fire safety, and which countries are not.

It’s difficult to quantify the rates but when carefully scrutinized, fire-prevention activities seem to play a role. The biggest role is that of societal acceptability of fire and, most certainly, the government’s role in fire-safety initiatives.

The 1997 report explains that North American fire death rates decreased by 66.7 per cent between 1979 and 2007. This is obviously a good thing but, in my mind, not good enough. (According to the newer report, Canada’s fire death rate dropped 71 per cent between 1980 and 2002, the most of any western county listed in the report.) We, as a society – and as the fire service – must change our focus to mitigation, fire prevention and public education, from fire response. Nonetheless, this report is solid and very relevant to the fire-service landscape in 2013. Every fire prevention division or bureau should print a copy of this report and use it as the basis for acquiring additional staff, I did.

Many members of the fire service are likely frustrated with the numbers of fires and fire deaths in our communities. I know I am, even though my community has experienced fewer structure fires so far this year than in years past; I must admit, that statistic does give me a good feeling, maybe one that allows me to think that fire prevention and public education is working.

I’ve heard people, and even highly ranked government officials, say that there are too many fire deaths and that we have to reduce those numbers. I say one death due to fire is too many. I would like to think that all of us believe that to be true, but why are we willing to settle for less? Fire deaths should be eliminated altogether.

I think we, as a society and, most certainly, the fire service, have to believe that every life has to be saved from fire. This task, unfortunately, is not going to get done by building more fire stations and hiring more firefighters. Statistics clearly show that in most fire fatalities, response time by the fire department was not to a factor. Communities and their councils must recognize that educating the public and inspecting buildings in order to reduce the risk of fire is the best investment.

I have committed the last 16 years of my career to educating the public about fire safety. I have now adopted the same motto as those U.S. Air Force PJs: that others may live. It is the reason I do what I do. I’m not in it for the money, although a steady pay cheque is nice. I don’t do if for fame or recognition, although I’m proud to put on the uniform I wear every day. I do it because it’s my calling, and I will continue to do it in spite of the uphill battles I encounter.

I trust that you strive to do your best, even when you can’t keep up with the endless inspections and demands to stay on top of codes and regulations. It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when government rhetoric and political will doesn’t seem to be on side. Regardless of what level of service your community offers in the area of fire prevention and public education, saving one life through your prevention efforts will make your career worth everything.

This will be my last column for Canadian Firefighter and EMS Quarterly. I trust you have been challenged and, perhaps, enlightened. I will continue to serve my community as you serve yours to keep it safe from fire. I appreciated your comments and e-mails along the way, as they served to encourage me. I continue to welcome your thoughts and will share any information I can to assist you should you want to contact me.

Like the PJs, we must continue to do what is right, that others might live.

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 has more than 23 years in fire suppression and fire prevention. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter at @KennyBoy55

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