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Fully Engaged: January 2011

I’ve never been more excited for the fire service than I am now. There’s no question that we face tough economic times; however, I can’t remember a time when we didn’t.

January 5, 2011
By Ken Sheridan

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I’ve never been more excited for the fire service than I am now.
There’s no question that we face tough economic times; however, I can’t
remember a time when we didn’t.

So, why am I excited? As a 21-year veteran of the fire service, I see
an opportunity to change the way we think about protecting people from
fire. Now is the time to explore ways to save our customers – the
public – before the fire starts. It can be done and it must be done.

We have to think of protecting lives from the threat of fire in broader
terms – it’s not just pulling up at a scene, hoping it’s not too late
for a rescue. This goal, desire, dream, vision or cause is the right
and noble thing to do as firefighters, isn’t it? I hope we are all in
this business for this same reason.

In keeping with that vision, we must come back to fire as the root
problem, right? Wrong. Human behaviour is the problem. I’ve been in the
fire service now for more than 20 years as a firefighter, fire
prevention officer, government advisor, public educator and fire
investigator. My experiences have taught me that this fire we fight may
be bigger than we think.

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I remember my first fatal fire: an elderly man died in a shack that he
lived in and called home. I remember my second fatal fire: a husband
and wife died after careless cooking, with alcohol being a factor. The
list goes on. Somewhere along the way I didn’t feel right, and thought
that perhaps I had more to offer than trying to save people from
burning buildings – which, quite frankly, I’ve never done; it seemed we
(the fire trucks) were always too late.

Interestingly, I remember the rush of riding the trucks. Pulling up at
a structure fire creates an incredible sense of super-heroism,
expecting to perform feats of greatness. And yet, I was there to do
what I could to save life and property, and I took that responsibility
seriously. Good thing I was young and fearless. I recall the
overwhelming sense of accomplishment and the intense adrenalin rush I
felt when the fire was out. On most days, I felt good about my fire
department and myself. I didn’t have that feeling when somebody died or
was injured. Even witnessing the loss of a family pet bothered me.

After searching for many years, I discovered a key to all of this chaos – people. 

As a fire service, we have nicely divided our organization into neat
boxes. We have the frontline troops – the women and men who ride the
rigs and do combat in the field, always fighting from behind (because
nobody called them before the fire started). We have the training
people doing a bang-up job equipping those folks on the frontlines with
skills and knowledge. We have fire prevention people who inspect
buildings and do “their” thing at schools, passing on a little
education to fill some mandate written in provincial acts across the country. I’m being a little facetious here
on purpose. In recent years I’ve asked myself why we have all these
boxes. Why can’t we become a little more proficient at joining some of
these boxes and become even stronger in our fire fight? We’ve done this
with our vehicles – we’ve combined pumpers and aerial trucks and call
them quints; we’ve combined pumpers and rescue trucks and call them
rescue/pumpers. This concept could surely work if we combine our
personnel roles.

If we are to be honest with ourselves, we must see destructive fire as
a bad thing. That means that we may have to open up and examine why we
do what we do. Do we just want to put out fires, hoping nobody gets
hurt (or worse) in the process, including ourselves or our comrades?
Maybe it’s time to restructure our views about fire and the people who
cause the fires.

It baffles me that more fire-service personnel haven’t caught on to
public education from a firefighter perspective. Every now and then, I
hear of a success story in which some firefighter has championed fire
safety education in his/her municipality. That’s great. Perhaps these
people have finally got tired of the needless deaths and injuries
caused by human negligence and fire. These champions are generally not
motivated by money or prestige, but rather by personal satisfaction and
a sense of duty. I believe it’s time we consider collectively changing
our approach to fire fighting. Is this even possible? Should we do it?
Can we do it?

There are many blogs and forums on the Internet about fire fighting and
the fire service in general. There are few writers who spend time on
public fire safety. Perhaps this is an indicator of what we know – or how much we
care – about making public fire safety education a priority.

In the next three columns – in April, July and October – I will look at
how to expand our ability to educate ourselves and how to more
efficiently educate the public about fire and ways to protect
themselves from it. Although some full-time fire departments have
dedicated public fire and life safety educators, other municipalities
lack honest, consistent programs. It is not really about the size or
geographical location of your department or even – dare I say? – money.
It’s about people, and our attitudes toward their safety and knowledge
of fire and its devastating outcomes.


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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