Canadian Firefighter Magazine

The tricky issue of negligence – part two

By Canadian Firefighter   

Features Blogs Editor’s blog

April 23

I had the pleasure of hearing Ontario Fire Marshal Pat Burke speak passionately last week about fire safety in
Ontario. His message was blunt and multi pronged:

  • the fire service needs to be more pro active about public education;
  • the window of opportunity to escape from a burning home – because of highly flammable contents and lightweight construction – is considerably shorter than it used to be;
  • and people who don’t install smoke detectors, or who remove the batteries, then experience a fire in their homes that results in injury or death, should be severely punished.

Judging by the nods in the audience at the Fire Safety Association of Canada’s annual conference in Markham, Ont., (admittedly, Burke was preaching to the choir) there’s support for charges of criminal negligence against parents, in particular, who fail to install or maintain smoke detectors then end up mourning the loss of children who couldn’t escape a burning home. Our poll on the home page of also indicates support for such harsh measures.


Burke knows full well, however, that there’s also opposition to jailing grieving parents who’ve lost their kids in a fire, but he’s saying on message.



“You can get charged with assault in Ontario if you’re old school and you attempt to spank your child and somebody sees it,” he said. “So, if you’re a parent and you go up and give your child a backhand you can suffer the consequences but, if through negligent and careless behaviors, you start a fire that kills or injures a child, nothing happens to you. We express sympathy, but we don’t express outrage and we have to e outraged at these circumstances.”


Burke has been criss-crossing the province, taking his power-point presentation to town halls and forums to try to win support for stronger penalties against those who ignore fire-prevention messages. You can see, download and use the presentation here (click on comprehensive fire safety strategy presentation).


Installing smoke detectors on every storey and outside sleeping areas – which is the law in Ontario – isn’t enough, Burke says, with the proliferation of quick-burning consumer goods and lightweight home construction. Residential sprinklers reduce the rate of dying in a fire by 69 per cent; smoke alarms reduce the rate of dying in a fire by 63 per cent; sprinklers and smoke alarms reduce the rate by 82 per cent. The question his how to get this message to a culturally diverse society and to groups that are clearly not connecting with the message now.


Burke gets it. It’s not necessarily the message that has to change, but how the fire service delivers the message. Traditional media – newspapers, radio and TV – already carry these messages but more and more people get their news, and therefore the advertising that goes with it, from the Internet, including sites such as YouTube and Facebook, or from untraditional sources such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. “We’ve got to find some way to ensure that were reaching that crowd.” Burke said.


Recognizing that is one thing. Putting it into action is quite another.


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