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The public education conundrum

Remember in the ’90s when our economy was just coming out of a slow period, and big corporations were starting to create huge profits again? That’s the first time I remember mission statements being part of the corporate identity of major corporations.

June 19, 2009
By Jay Shaw


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Remember in the ’90s when our economy was just coming out of a slow period, and big corporations were starting to create huge profits again? That’s the first time I remember mission statements being part of the corporate identity of major corporations. Those mission statements included mantras such as providing the best customer service possible or assuring that products were of the highest quality while maintaining the best warranty in the industry. These catchy phrases let us know that somebody cared and that companies and their leaders appreciated the fact that we spent our hard-earned dollars on their products.

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Something also happened in the fire service; we created a mission statement that actually meant something. A quick scan of websites for a number of major Canadian fire departments revealed that prevention is generally listed as the first step to protect life and property. So, if most fire services publicly state that prevention is the way to go, why does it seem that Canadian municipalities are short changing prevention programs?

A bit of research on this found that just four to six per cent of most fire departments’ budgets are allocated to prevention (even less in rural / paid on call departments). This seemed unrealistic and out of synch with mission statements that often include prevention. Costs for suppression and staffing consume the majority of a fire department’s budget. Indeed, in some departments, suppression eats up more than 85 per cent of the funding. But four per cent for prevention seems so low, especially when suppression staff often play a key role in getting the prevention message out to the community. Anyone looking at a department budget might figure that departments need to shift resources to better reflect these mission statements. But even a seasoned CFO is unlikely to figure out how to shift the resources around to better fund the prevention side of things. At first glance, it appears to make sense to move a bunch of firefighters to prevention from suppression or other areas but that just creates bigger problems.

So, I went to the experts, starting with the Justice Institute of British Columbia, which suggested I contact John Hall Jr., an acclaimed researcher in fire prevention analysis with the NFPA. 

It turned out that I was looking at the problem two dimensionally and did not thoroughly understand how to assess what I perceived to be the uneven distribution of fire department dollars. I was placing the importance of the issue to the fire service on par with how the department allocated funds instead of on evidence-based formulas.

“In suppression, we have a pretty good set of evidence-based, consensus formulas to calculate what we need so that firefighters can respond safely and effectively to whatever fires (or other emergency incidents they cover) may occur,” says Hall.

“Those calculations and our shared history of making decisions based on those formulas create a great deal of inertia behind funding suppression as we have always funded suppression.

“In prevention, we don’t have nearly the same consensus on what should be spent and why. Where we do have some consensus is on the resources needed to provide inspections and related code enforcement to commercial buildings.”
The programs we use must be effective, but without having data to help us understand which programs work best, it is difficult for prevention leaders to claim success. We know prevention programs work but finding a value or formula that supports our anecdotal knowledge is a challenge.

So, how do we reinvent the wheel to get the best out of that four per cent? We create open chains of communication among prevention leaders, their subordinates and outside agencies to come up with new ideas. And we have to think outside the box to create new solutions. Inviting the business community into our brainstorming allows for external views in marketing and plan design that have been tested in the private sector and have a track record of success. My contribution to this process is private-public partnerships. Some departments are already looking at this. Having an official sponsor  for your fire service could bring in revenue that funds these important programs. The thought of turning  an apparatus into a paid advertisement for the local hardware store may not sit well with some traditionalists but it is time to look hard at longstanding opinions and open up to change.

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Fire departments with small public education budgets are forced to think outside the box to find ways to fund initiatives.


 

In today’s economy, throwing money at a problem is not an option. Ask questions and see what your neighbouring department is doing right. Many departments run great prevention and education programs and ideas are just a phone call away. Chilliwack is a good example. Its assistant chief, Ian Josephson, is a leader when it comes to innovation. He was never an operational firefighter; his first career was in the insurance industry underwriting fire losses, and his background in civil engineering is a bonus when it comes to understanding those code books we all love so much. These are unique attributes that provide an outside perspective into some of the that’s-the-way-it’s-done-around-here attitudes that are prevalent in the fire service.

Chilliwack does some very cool things. Applicants for recruit positions are required to do a five-minute public speaking presentation. This says volumes about a service that wants its members to be able to deliver its prevention programs properly and, more importantly, willingly. The department raises money through service groups and funds a large portion of its program costs with this revenue. Last year, $100,000 was raised towards funding a safety village that uses interactive methods to deliver the prevention message. Chilliwack is also part of a lower mainland contingency that has embraced residential sprinkler systems and made them law.

Why do other jurisdictions resist this? When asked about the single most important thing we can do to improve prevention , both Hall and Josephson, along with Winnipeg Prevention Director Peter Kloos and Manitoba Association of Fire Chiefs President Andy Thiessen all agreed that sprinklers are among the most important aspects of the prevention message. This is a no brainer, but we have to do a better job of lobbying governments to make this change. We need to use better strategies to improve our plan to accomplish this. We have to fight through the uniformed generalizations and misinformation. Naysayers claim residential sprinklers will reduce firefighter jobs and give councils reason to lay off firefighters. We need to have educated and prepared responses to those claims. Our jobs will be safe if we continue to embrace  other mitigation forms like hazmat and medical response as well as other service-oriented programs that we can deliver. We don’t just fight fires anymore; we have to see this clearly.

Thiessen offered a rural perspective on prevention, talking about his 30-member paid on call department in Morden, Man. These guys take prevention seriously, especially for a small department with next to no budget. Its members do drills on the first and third Wednesdays of the month and train in public speaking to improve their delivery of the prevention message. Be honest. If you’re a rural chief, have you ever made your crew do a public speaking drill? If you have you’re an innovator; if not, why not do so?

Manitoba has been in the news recently with two fire deaths on First Nations reserves. Both of these tragic deaths have been partially linked to overcrowding and housing conditions. Thiessen says we have to do a better job to get the message out and empower First Nations people to embrace prevention strategies.

“Having outsiders that might not understand the cultural differences and value systems of aboriginal people teaching prevention might not be in our best interest,” he says. “Maybe we need to explore having respected members of the aboriginal community deliver the programs to each other and build on that to create better results.” 

Josephson believes “more emphasis needs to be placed on training firefighters in fire prevention including inspections, public education and investigations.”

He also believes we need to look at changing the focus back to residential homes. “After all, if you review the stats this is where we are having the most fire deaths, injuries and frequent property loss.”

Thiessen urges departments to embrace outside resources and experts to help improve the services they deliver. For example, Manitoba’s provincial education co-ordinator teaches the fire and life safety program through the fire college.

“The best part is she is not a firefighter; she is a teacher who properly delivers instructional techniques to our firefighters and students who are first learning the trade. Having a teacher teach is such a simple concept but we need to have more of this to better improve our programs.”

Take a close look at your own departments; if you are in a position to make change from an administrative level I hope you will look at new ideas and embrace the out-of-the-box theories that others across Canada are already implementing. Younger, less experienced firefighters are following your lead and your actions are the foundation for the change. Besides, you probably wrote the mission statement.


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