Canadian Firefighter Magazine

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Fully Engaged: July 2011

As a boy, I didn’t think much about money. I came from a middle-class family with two brothers and one sister, and life was good. The older I got, the more I thought about money; there were more things I wanted than my money would allow. So, as a teenager, I cut lawns to save money and I worked part time at an auto-repair garage – the owner of that garage was a volunteer firefighter, like my dad. I was happy.

July 7, 2011
By Ken Sheridan

Topics

As a boy, I didn’t think much about money. I came from a middle-class family with two brothers and one sister, and life was good. The older I got, the more I thought about money; there were more things I wanted than my money would allow. So, as a teenager, I cut lawns to save money and I worked part time at an auto-repair garage – the owner of that garage was a volunteer firefighter, like my dad. I was happy.

When I started a life of my own, I realized that I would be footing the bill for all of my expenses, and I knew I had to budget. If I wanted something extra, sacrifices would have to be made.

When I was hired as a young firefighter, I discovered that municipalities have only so much money to pay for all the goods and services that taxpayers have come to expect.

The leaders of our fire services are charged with the responsibility of spending wisely. After weighing all the demands of a municipal fire service, some money has to be spent on necessary items that don’t require a whole lot of analysis, such as hose replacement and fuel for the trucks. Wages for firefighters in career departments often eat up a large portion of the municipal budget. Tasks such as replacing fire apparatuses use up another big hunk of money.

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Then there is fire prevention and (hopefully) public education. I left this to the end because many municipal leaders and fire-service personnel do that. Unfortunately, too often, our customers and politicians think that if the municipality has fire trucks and people to run them, then the fire department is set. I hope the ones on the inside don’t feel this way.

I have spoken with many fire personnel all over the country; the dilemma of how to fund fire prevention and education is widespread.

Before I continue, it must be said that preventing fires is a lot less costly than fighting them. Fire prevention staff must stop comparing fire-suppression costs with fire-prevention costs. The community has to be prepared to battle blazes and respond to other emergencies with equipment and personnel, and, simply put, this is expensive.

Secondly, before we can gauge if there is enough money for fire prevention and public education, we have to understand that maybe fire prevention and public education proponents don’t really need a big chunk of money to do their jobs. Instead of whining about which divisions get more money, fire prevention and public education officers need to be creative and inspired about their jobs, be realistic about budgets, and, as the cliché goes, think outside the box. Municipal fire-prevention programs must be thought of in two parts: there should be a fire-code enforcement component and a public-education component. These two distinctly different roles must be thought of and budgeted for differently (although the same people often do both jobs).

I have previously stressed communication with the fire chief. It is crucial to encourage the chief to understand the entire fire strategy for the community, which must include fire prevention and public education. Many fire chiefs have risen to the top from among the fire-suppression ranks, and some are therefore a bit unintentionally lopsided in their perceptions of need in the fire department. Firefighters with a passion for fire prevention and public education must make crystal clear to the chief the importance of funding programs and providing staff to help make our communities safer from fire. But fire prevention and public education staff must also do their homework.

Those in our departments who embrace fire prevention and public education, and want others to share that passion, must submit proposals to the chief explaining how active and aggressive fire-prevention and public-education programs will work, how these programs will benefit the customers we serve, and how council will benefit from lower firefighting costs due to better fire-prevention and public-education strategies. Accurate records of all fire-protection and public-education activities must be kept and analyzed to ensure programs are working efficiently. Comparisons to fire-prevention and public-education programs led by similarly sized fire departments may help streamline the programs in your region to meet your own prevention and education mandates. Instead of just asking for more money to expand these programs, we must prove how crucial they are to the department and explain the consequences of failing to maintain or expand them. Dealing with fire when it’s burning is too dangerous and too costly.

When all is said and done, we have to live with whatever budget council allocates to the fire department, sufficient or not. Or do we? Going outside the usual taxpayer-funded fire department is not something people often think about. I’m not speaking of having a social function or a 50/50 draw to raise money. Sometimes, spearheading an all-out fundraising project for a need that can’t be met through traditional methods may be in order.

In an article I wrote for Fire Fighting in Canada in August 2006, I explained a project I co-ordinated through which almost $80,000 was raised in 14 months to purchase a fire-safety house/trailer and resource vehicle for our community. The venture was positive and motivating. Even though funds are not always available, a commitment to doing the right thing can turn a need into a reality.

Regardless of your department’s size or budget, more can always be done to promote fire safety. Becoming a champion for fire prevention and public education doesn’t just happen overnight; you need to invest time, passion and make sacrifices. The ability to learn and work as part of a team to accomplish a goal that may seem unrealistic is what sets you apart from the droning of the siren on your fire truck as you respond to another fire.


Ken Sheridan is captain of fire prevention in Norfolk County, Ont. He has more than 21 years in fire suppression and fire prevention. Contact him at ken.sheridan@norfolkcounty.ca


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