I remember a few years ago one of my out-of-province firefighter colleagues telling me his fire department had just put dog and cat resuscitation kits on its rescues. He and his fellow firefighters thought it was interesting that a couple of recent media photos of pet rescues – and the subsequent administration of oxygen – had made some pet lobby groups ask city hall to provide special rescue air masks to fit animal-shaped faces. Apparently the image of a dog with a human non-rebreathe mask on its snout was not well received by some animal lovers.
The running joke in the fire hall was that firefighters didn’t speak dog or cat and maybe they should receive some kind of language training on just what to do if they pulled a pet out of a house fire. How do you assess Fido’s level of consciousness or ask Felix the cat to follow your finger?
Joking aside, this type of service is a value-added skill and I can assure you these firefighters do take it seriously, as many have pets of their own. When it comes to adding new skills or training, most firefighters are willing to go the extra mile if it means saving a life, regardless of species.
However, have you ever wondered what new thing or training initiative is going to show up next? What does the future of the job look like? Where are we going as a profession?
When we look back at the history of the fire service and see how we have slowly morphed into an all-hazards profession, taking on medical response, hazardous-material response, all kinds of prevention programs, and the multi-faceted training of all things technical rescue, you can see how much the fire service has grown in 50 years. If you take a good look at patterns – how and why we have taken on new mitigation and training programs – you can clearly see how North America’s economy, workforce, demographics and growth, and technological and industrial developments have shaped the areas in which we’ve grown and changed. For example, because of the growth of industrial and manufacturing sectors, and as chemical companies and industry have had to share space with urban sprawl, fire services now include hazmat teams. The same can be said for training for wildland urban interface fires, which seem to have increased in frequency. As our population ages, many departments are experiencing double-digit increases in responses to seniors homes and care facilities.
So when I look at patterns and our need to stay ahead of the game by being more proactive than reactive, I can clearly see where the next gap is. Canadian fire services need to look into mandatory emergency preparedness education for all firefighters. The new reality of the frequency and force of large-scale disasters is here to stay. In fact, I would say all response agencies including EMS and police should have a more-than basic knowledge of emergency preparedness training.
Emergency-preparedness and disaster-response training for large-scale incidents has been around and included in our fire training programs for some time at an introductory level. We throw a few hours at new recruits (mass casualty incidents, ICS 100) but we really don’t go deeply enough into how to educate and prepare people for when the big one hits. We really need to look at developing strategies to roll out and deliver high-quality emergency-preparedness training that can be used to teach and educate the citizens we serve about how to properly prepare for a disaster, how to shelter in place, and how to make a plan and be prepared to evacuate on a moment’s notice.
Imagine if every firefighter were trained to deliver basic emergency-preparedness information based on known hazards and local risk factors: how to make a 72-hour kit, survive in your home until help arrives; and how to get local emergency information. Every time a truck rolls out there is an opportunity to provide service and training to the citizens we tell everyone we are sworn to protect. Pamphlets, school visits, visiting vulnerable populations – we are doing these things already so it is literally as simple as adding the extra information to the repertoire.
Just as you can easily regurgitate information on smoke alarms and carbon monoxide poisoning – as easy as any paramedic can tell someone the signs and symptoms of stroke and a police officer can rattle off 10 tips to keep your property safe – Canadian fire services need to take the lead on this initiative before someone else does. I say this for two reasons. First, firefighters are the faces of disaster response. I think back to the Ghostbusters movies and the theme-song lyric “Who you gonna call?” Well, folks, it’s us. When “it” hits the fan, firefighters will be the ones asked to respond first. And secondly, in a time of budget cuts and fiscal prudency, we need to be able to do more and show our value every chance we can.
I don’t think I need to give the ounce-of-prevention speech. Wayne Gretzky said you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take. Even the government of Canada’s 72-hour preparedness website (www.getprepared.gc.ca) provides links to fire-prevention activities and home fire evacuation plans, smoke and CO alarms, and the bigger message of preparing for a disaster. Yet no one is actually taking the shot and using responders as the foot soldiers to deliver the message.
So the next time you’re on shift or walking your dog through the park or getting introduced at a party as a firefighter and you have an opportunity to talk to someone about smoke alarms or fire prevention tips, add 15 seconds and tell someone how to prepare for an emergency. If you need help with what to say, my contact information is below. Trust me, it is way easier than learning how to speak dog.
Jay Shaw is firefighter and primary care paramedic with the City of Winnipeg. Contact him at
and follow him on Twitter @disasterbucket
From the Floor: April 2014
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