In the middle of last week, a little dust-up happened in the House of Assembly. Buried deep in question period, an NDP MHA complained that the province wasn’t doing enough for municipal fire departments in the province — a Conservative cabinet minister argued that the government was doing plenty.
The NDP MHA pointed out that there were 60 urgent requests for new firefighting vehicles in the province, and that the province has cut $2.2 million from the fire equipment budget. The entire exchange saw the two speak some 377 words.
The cabinet minister then issued a 392-word news release detailing all the good things his government was doing for firefighters.
Politics as usual.
But buried in the politics is a core issue about the way governments work and the fact that governments purposefully don’t regulate themselves with the same diligence they regulate others.
It’s all well and good to talk about the millions that have gone into fire protection and funding volunteer departments. But it’s disheartening to see the news releases that describe that governmental munificence.
Take last week: among other things, the minister of municipal affairs announced funding for self-contained breathing apparatus for one town and “communications equipment — including seven pagers” for another.
Hermitage-Sandyville got enough money for three sets of firefighter’s bunker clothing, including helmets, pants and fire jackets.
Francois got four sets of firefighters’ gear.
Bunker gear is the absolutely most basic protective equipment a firefighter has — and no one should be patting themselves on the back in any way for providing that kind of necessary equipment. Communications gear? Essential for a modern fire department.
Stop and think about this: if you worked for a private company that had to do work in confined spaces, that company would be required to ensure that you had a minimum of government-mandated training and equipment.
Put it another way: if a private company in this province was fighting fires, there would be strict rules about what equipment and training would be required. The provincial government would have minimum standards for the equipment involved and if those standards weren’t met, the companies would be charged.
Regularly, you see firms charged for having employees who fail to use fall-arresting gear while working on roofs. Imagine if the province’s smaller fire departments were held to the same tight regulation: would you see the aging equipment and gear that many cash-strapped departments now use regularly? No.
There are fire departments in this province that are, I’m sorry, too poorly equipped to properly enter a burning house and fight a fire while keeping their firefighters safe. I know: I fought fires here for years — luckily in a newly formed department blessed with a town with the cash needed to fully equip its fire service. That’s far from universal.
I know just how old the gear is when I see other departments in action around the province. I have seen fire departments in this province still using the same personal protective gear that I was using when I first stepped on a fire truck in 1982. And there have been more than a few advancements in fire equipment in 30 years.
The fact that fire departments are allowed to fight fires with limited and aged gear has more to do with the fact that they are an offshoot of government than anything else. There are fire trucks in service that are more than 30 years old: would you ride in a 30-year-old cab?
This is not to disparage the province’s firefighters: they do tremendous work, often with outdated and failing equipment. There is no shortage of bravery amongst the men and women who put themselves in danger.
But it’s time fire equipment stopped being something that government ministers drive around and hand out like party favours.
There should be province-wide minimum standards for equipment — including both its age and condition — right down to the individual protective equipment used by each firefighter. There should be required training.
Governments, both municipal and provincial, benefit financially from the volunteer work of firefighters — they should ensure that every department can afford a baseline of modern, safe equipment. If they aren’t willing to do that, they should take the politically unpalatable step of limiting the types of situations that under-equipped departments can undertake.
It’s only fair. Firefighting is inherently dangerous — we shouldn’t make it more dangerous by failing to properly equip every one of the people we expect to do it.
There are minimum requirements you have to meet, and minimum equipment you have to have, before you lift a manhole cover and go down into a sewer.
Why aren’t there the same for the people we send into burning buildings?
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.