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Getting it Right

October 23, 2015  By Paul Dixon

We are on the way to winter now, but it was a long, hot summer out west, and it is looking more and more like this is the new normal – whatever “normal” is supposed to be. Looking at the planet as a whole, July 2015 was the warmest month since records were first kept back in the 1880s. The ideal for most is long, dry and hot summers following on the heels of milder winters with decreased precipitation – this is what we seem to want this new normal to be.

We’re long past the denial stage, of course, and there has been a definite change in the weather. And all indications are the things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better. The question I have for those who make the big decisions on these matters and ultimately write the cheques is if they have any appreciation for what is happening today and what we are looking at in the very foreseeable future.

One thing you can count on for sure with any large-scale disaster, be it wildfire, flood, tornado, ice storm or whatever, is that such a catastrophe will draw politicians like ants heading to a picnic. I don’t mean the local mayors and councillors, because they are often working harder than anyone else. It’s the provincial and federal leaders with their handlers and the media circus that flop down in the middle of the action to make comforting noises to the public at large to demonstrate their level of concern.

Ever wonder how much of a disruption these visits are to the people who are in the middle of the action? There was a scene this summer in B.C. that saw a group of wildland firefighters rounded up on their rest period to provide a suitable backdrop for the talking heads. The premier was talking about how we need a national firefighting strategy. Has anyone told her that we do have a national firefighting strategy?

That’s the disconnect. It’s not that we don’t have a national strategy, because we do. What we have is a political philosophy that demands that costs must be continually cut. Our national firefighting strategy follows the same model as our national emergency management strategy, with CIFFC at the top of the pyramid as the national coordinating agency.


The theory of emergency management in this country starts with the individual. We are initially responsible for our own safety and well-being. When events happen that are beyond our control, we call for help and, in most communities, that takes the shape of our police, fire and ambulance agencies. When they find themselves unable to cope, they in turn will ask for assistance from surrounding jurisdictions. It’s the same model for civic works and engineering. Move up a level and the provincial government gets involved, either to take over direct management of the situation or to act as a source of resources. When a local government declares a state of emergency it makes provincial funding available for emergency supplies and resources. The role of the federal government in these situations is largely financial, ensuring the money is available to address the situation.

Of course, it all looks good on paper, but there comes a time when decisions have to be made and a lot of those decisions lead directly to the spending of money – tax money – and in some cases, it’s a lot of money. There is incredible pressure on front-line supervisors and managers to only make “good” decisions when it comes to spending money.

More than one helicopter operator has told me this year that there has been a significant decrease in the days they were put on standby for firefighting, because they’ve been told that if a helicopter is put on standby and then not used, someone is going to answer for that. Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not, but after years of hearing politicians of all stripes talking about looking for “efficiencies” as a way of keeping costs down, I know which side I’m leaning towards.

At least one province failed to maintain its training program for community-based wildland firefighters, with the result that at the height of the fire season, they were critically short staffed and were desperately trying to set up training sessions, in some cases relying on people coming out of retirement to conduct the training. So, how much money was saved by not maintaining that level of training in the first place?

A little bit of critical thinking and not a whole lot of money can take what is basically a very sound system that works well at every level in this country, but we have to make that commitment and stick to it. You’ve heard it before and it really fits here – you can pay me now or you can pay me later . . . I don’t want to think about what the future costs will be if you aren’t going to do it now.

Paul Dixon is a freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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