Apr. 5, 2024 -- "We are working with the Kahnawake Mohawk Nation this spring, which reflects our national footprint. We connect fire departments and their communities to advanced knowledge internationally and across the country," says Ernie Polsom, Chief Executive Officer of FireWise Consulting, with four decades of experience in training personnel to prevent and fight fires. 

FireWise Consulting is just as likely to work in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as in Alberta, Saskatchewan, or British Columbia and the Yukon.

"FireWise delivers most of our training programs to fire investigators and inspectors who are upgrading skills," says Polsom. "We offer an online service with a complete program to get students from sign-up to completion of their ProBoard certification online from the comfort of your home or fire station." 

While the courses come in a variety, the demand for teaching fire-fighting worldwide stays the same. "While we are a full-service fire and emergency management consulting company, our training focus has been preventing or investigating structural fires. Our focus is expanding to include emergency management, leadership, and specialty investigations for emerging issues like e-vehicles."

FireWise is not just focussing on fire protection professionals. FireWise has created educational resources to enhance the understanding of building owners and managers. 

"Our Fire Inspection for the Building Owner course offers vital information that will help reduce fire risks and involve building owners as allies in the fire safety system. The most effective fire prevention is avoiding fires altogether."

There are a few critical priorities that firefighters across Canada are working to manage. "Climate change is affecting every aspect of our service model. From heat emergencies affecting our residents with complex health requirements and heat impacts on firefighters working emergency scenes, to a wholly changed wildland-interface fire risk profile for nearly every community, climate change is challenging us all.

"We can see it all around us with the increased frequency and severity of drought cycles, extreme heat, and low snow levels. These ongoing changes place First Nation and Metis communities on the front lines," says Polsom.

What is the main worry of people who teach others how to fight fires? Polsom gets right to the issue. "The shortage of volunteer firefighters. This is a big problem, with big training demands, fewer volunteers, and insufficient staff at facilities." 

He says this is the case in Canada and also around the world. In one of many examples, "We just examined fire service optimization in Armenia. The trouble is, they don't have enough staff. It's happening everywhere you look. All sectors are having trouble finding volunteers to get trained." 

Recent Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs studies suggest that Canada lost 30,000 volunteer firefighters between 2016 and 2022. Polsom says the nature of training has been affected by changes in the nature of the threat. 

The science of structure fires and the growth of fires inside structures have changed. He says it is because materials are different in furniture, fixtures, and finishing.

Thus, the nature of fire is different. Firefighters encounter unpredictable profiles for fires with new electronics, batteries, and appliances bursting with chemical energy. Polsom' team includes consultants and instructors, all with long histories in the fire service. 

"Consulting work requires examination of operational personnels' level and types of training, equipment, protective gear, knowledge of preventative services, and hands-on training for the breadth of services offered by the department." 

Equally important to FireWise training programs, "We are all highly experienced investigators, inspectors and fire service leaders – our experiences help link the theory we teach to real-life applications. We are also up to date with modern trends and integrate them into our work. 

"Twenty years ago, few volunteer fire departments did much for medical  response. Now some departments are seeing those calls reflect up to 70% of their total call volumes – an issue for career and volunteers," Polsom says.

What do Canadian fire services look like? 

As a fire protection services professional who has worked in Canada and around the world for 40 years, every project FireWise is involved in now focuses on climate change and sustainable resourcing in addition to the more standard areas of fire response and training. 

"Our solutions, whether affordable access to leading practice courses and certifications through online delivery methods or creative solutions built in consultation with our clients to meet the emergency response needs of their communities, reflect these priorities."

When losses do happen, "We are there to assist in understanding everything that went well and identify opportunities to support our responders and residents better. For example, in Hay River, where there were two wildfires last year, FireWise was hired to investigate the causes of those fires."

Wildfires will be the ongoing 'big story' affecting communities across Canada. "We already had a fire that went 'out of control' in Lumby, B.C., in early March 2024," Polsom says. "The weather, temperature, and fire intensity have been unpredictable in the past several years, posing challenges for professional firefighters."

Large fires in the Lower Mainland, extensive wildfires in jurisdictions like Alberta, Moncton and the Northwest Territories reflect the national scope and challenge of wildfires and are creating new problems including changing vegetation and the loss of ground cover destabilizing slopes. 

"The loss of ground cover and forests makes our lands vulnerable to erosion and flash flooding."

Polsom is aware of the wildfire threats faced by First Nations communities. 

"First Nations are often on the front line of these fires. There are ways to be prepared. We offer training programs to help First Nations protect their homes, property, and critical infrastructure. Together, we can help make these communities more resilient and better able to protect themselves from these fires that appear to be a permanent part of our lives. Together, we can convince Federal and Provincial governments to make necessary investments in community safety."

FireWise is honoured to be a part of helping build strong and resilient communities through education, consulting and knowledge sharing.


Article Prepared by Malcolm 'Mack' McColl 

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Climate Change, Volunteers and the Challenges of Fire Fighting in 2024

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