FireWise Consulting was started in 2008. The principals in the company were aware of the 2004 Judgement of Inquiry looked into the line of duty death of a paid-on-call firefighter in Clearwater, B.C.. The inquiry made three recommendations. The most significant recommendation was that every fire department in the province of B.C. should be audited to comply with safety standards, best practices, equipment, and maintenance.
At this point, FireWise Consulting became involved in audits of fire departments on request. In the following years FireWise Consulting conducted more than 150 audits and inspections in B.C. and Alberta. The audits and inspections were not punitive. They were status reports of where fire departments were standing in compliance with the safety of the firefighters.
The status reports made recommendations creating a roadmap for fire departments and their governing bodies to improve.
FireWise Consulting’s Ernie Polsom believes local governments need to step up to the plate on funding, and all the relevant public safety agencies need to face funding issues, WorksafeBC issues, occupational health and safety regulations and priorities. FireWise pointed out to the fire departments the necessity of interacting with jurisdictional authorities. “It is a team effort with assigned responsibilities and duties to meet the duty of care and standard of care obligations,” says Polsom
"Our main concerns are always the duty of care standards that must be met according to established service levels employed by the local Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).”
Adequate funding for fire departments is a challenge regardless of the size of the community. Once a level of service has been established through the authority of a bylaw and policy statements of the AHJ, adequate funding is crucial. Small communities have difficulty providing funding with their limited tax base.
Audits and inspections highlighted these challenges. At the same time most inspections audits were positive. Fire departments are providing exceptional service under the constraints. The chief coroner asserted that it takes people to put out fires. Training, equipping, and maintaining the fire service is critical. Continuous improvement is necessary as regulations and community demands evolve. It takes careful planning and on-going implementation.
In modern B.C. wildland forest fires are a part of what urban, municipal, and regional district firefighters will be called upon to fight. structural firefighters got involved in the wildland fires.
In 2004, former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon produced the Filmon Firestorm Report after the 'summer of fire' in 2003. Flimon’s report, "made dozens of recommendations for changes to B.C.'s wildfire strategy." (https://bccfa.ca/filmon-firestorm-report/)
This report and the auditing process led to a new level of priorities for wildland firefighters. The summer of 2022 saw a lot of municipal fire departments deployed to assist in protecting homes, farms and businesses. Many were equipped with structural protection units which are portable sprinklers systems designed to protect property values. The provincial Wildfire Management Branch assisted in protecting structures, and a strategy led to overcoming tough management problems," says Polsom.
Fire departments now coordinate on emergency planning and management. They are tasked with calling in resources and setting up emergency management centres to manage large-scale incidents.
Combined interaction occurred in the 2022 fire season with the White Rock blaze west of Vernon, says Polsom. This fire burned for months and was declared out in October. A lot of firefighting resources were committed. Other fires threatening communities were in Sicamous, Penticton, Osoyoos, Kamloops, plus places that saw local fire departments mounting an effort to save communities. One example was a fire in West Kelowna that contained, used combined firefighting resources on the west side of Okanagan Lake.
Fighting the fire near West Kelowna was successful due to past events when now-retired Fire Chief Wayne Schnitzler started to equip and train the West Kelowna Fire Department in the specialty of wildland firefighting. He was great at what he did, organizing firefighting resources in the Okanagan, and West Kelowna got the benefits.. "Their effort produced great results in keeping the fire from reaching the city again this year,” says Polsom.
In many communities, the burden of firefighting falls on the shoulders of paid-on-call or volunteer firefighters, "Ninety percent of fire departments in B.C. are staffed by volunteers or paid-on-call personnel." Many full-time career fire departments also contributed to fighting the large fires. A prime example of evolving firefighting priorities occurred when the City of New Westminster Fire Chief was deployed to coordinate crews in the Cariboo District who were fighting wildland fires.
Back in 2003, Glen Sanders, a FireWise Consulting founding partner (retired) was summoned to Barriere in the Interior for five weeks, and they set up 95 pieces of firefighting apparatus. Sanders believed 2003 was a turning point for structural firefighters to be trained to a standard that is effective for the Wildfire Management Branch.
Fighting wildland fires involves reading weather, knowing potential fuel loads, and reading topography surrounding the fire. Training involves a lot of personnel safety. The focus becomes protecting lives first, then protecting property, including critical infrastructure, ranches and farms, houses, and structures.
This summer of 2023, south of Nanaimo, the Mount Hayes LNG facility, which sits on a 20-hectare location about six km northwest of the town of Ladysmith, one of the largest LNG plants in Canada, was threatened by wildland fire..
Fortis had done a Fire Protection plan, which called for a barrier to prevent fire reaching a critical facility. They had a plan in place to protect that infrastructure, and this planning came from some of the lessons that had been learned over the years. Before advances to the cellular phone network, FireWise used to experience telephone poles gone and communications reduced to 2-way radio. Back in 2003, communications networks were transitioning from analog to digital cellphone networks. They learned that some of firefighters were able to continue communication while others were not.
Mount Hayes was spared an unsavory encounter with forest fire due to fire prevention strategies. Keeping up-to-date with advances in communications is essential in the coordination and management of emergency response agencies.
Today, there is a provincial focus with grants and funding to communities to examine threats to critical infrastructure, like hydro stations and cellphone towers, and communities like the Nuu Cha Nulth west of Zeballos are doing these examinations.
Telegraph Creek was nearly wiped out a few years ago, and there is legal action over it. Local knowledge is important, and the local community wants to protect homes and resources. At Telegraph Creek on in Northwest BC, they were told to leave town, and the town was nearly wiped out because of the evacuation.
FireWise had gained valuable experience in Central B.C.. First Nation communities came down and worked so well to fight the Barriere fire with old fire trucks and equipment, but they knew what was coming with the fire. A lot was learned that local community resources have to be used.
In another example, property owners were told to evacuate at the White Rock Fire west of Vernon, and farmers and ranchers at Falkland said they weren't leaving and stood their ground to fight the fire. They used their own resources to save their properties.
Farmers on the prairies get organized when they have grass fires; they mobilize to build dirt fire breaks, deploy irrigation sprinklers, and use manure spreaders loaded with water to wet down the fields. Polsom says it is amazing to see how the prairie communities, including First Nations communities, come together when their lands are threatened.
The government exercises authority and issues evacuation orders, but experienced firefighters will often say a higher priority needs to be given to local knowledge. After all, local contractors have equipment like excavators and can act as guides to sites for water for tankers. The Wildfire Management Branch is good at what they do and has a large organization of camps, contractors, food and washroom trailers that they mobilize rapidly to the large project fires. However, this system the Wildfire Management Branch has organized is limited in capacity and can't send resources to all areas of the province. Local landowners and First Nations can be very effective in protecting their property if they are allowed.
As time marches on, changes are taking place in British Columbia, wineries are buying up land. It's quite a phenomenon. Growers are moving to Vancouver Island because it's too hot to grow grapes in California. Big wineries, Cherry Point vineyards, Blue Grouse wineries, etcetera, are buying up farm and forest land and planting vineyards north of Victoria. This new development is a direct reflection of the impact of a changing climate.
In the Yukon, they had to manage flooding in Whitehorse in 2022, they had a short summer, and many were displaced from homes. The flooding came due to early snowmelt and heavy rains. The climate is changing.
FireWise Consulting provides education. They do fire service reviews. They help fire departments get better organized and better equipped for meeting expanding service delivery objectives. They provide online training and deliver fire prevention programs. They assess fire risks to property and educate on how to make structures more fire safe.
Insurance companies welcome the process of improving fire safety. Most fires are preventable. FireWise delivers fire investigation training. And they have a First Nations fire prevention training program for structures and homes.
Bob Turley was working on Manitoulin Island near Georgian Bay, Ontario, in October 2023. They were inspecting public buildings for fire safety code compliance in this longstanding First Nation community.
Polsom says fire safety standards have to be updated and modernized, and teaching programs must be delivered to First Nations communities or other remote locations to allow people to self-assess their properties on-site for fire-safe conditions and practices.
Are the buildings maintained with open exit doors? Are there unwanted accumulations of cardboard in halls or outside buildings? Are fire extinguishers and fire detection equipment fully operational? Are building sprinkler systems fully functional? Are fire-safe practices being observed? Apartment and housing building managers learn how to look at fire safety, alarms systems, and inspections of dark corridors and the integrity of fire separations and engineered systems."
Self-assessment skills give community managers the insights to better protect community resources and facilities, "Our courses are all-inclusive, interactive, and self-paced. Courses are divided into units and involve as many as 35 hours of training," says Polsom.
Communities need fire safety, and in too many cases, there are Indigenous communities in urgent need of training, "What we've done reflects the concerns about a higher incidence of fire in First Nation communities. We give the training at half price on a Canada-wide basis to First Nation communities."
It is challenging to deliver in-person classroom-type training because of their remote locations. As the internet is introduced into more remote communities, education will improve dramatically. "Too many First Nation administrations operate without broadband internet services."
As things stand, "We did a course in Taber, Alberta, this summer, and two students came from Moncton, New Brunswick, to take the Fire Investigation Course." Traveling long distances to get training is too costly for most communities.
In the month of June 2021, FireWise Consulting became a Benefit Corporation for Good . "Our company operates with a Triple Bottom Line: People, Planet, and Profit, where profit is measured by increased social capital."
Any First Nation trained to do fire safety self-assessments would gain social capital in the form of accessible and possibly transferable training, safety benefits, and planetary benefits, Polsom says.
"When our company delivers fire investigation training we have to burn things, for education, to provide an investigation site to students. In the near future this will be done online with virtual 360 video and virtual tours of burn sites. We teach investigation and inspection to see burn patterns, or what remains as evidence. Students learn how to conduct scientific investigations. We are doing a small part by eliminating teaching fires, and through the use of 360-videos and virtual tours, our goal is to get fire investigation completely online."
Online training meets many of the Benefit Corporation for Good objectives concerning fire prevention and investigation.
"Bob Turley is a fire investigation expert," says Polsom. "Bob has a real passion for prevention training to a pre-emptive level, and he teaches community managers to think about fire prevention looking for internal community resources for the answers. We can 'train the trainer,' which spreads fire prevention knowledge through communities.
"Turley has a passion for teaching this ability to First Nations whose properties are too often at risk. Knowledge helps prevent fires."
FireWise Consulting was operated for 13 years by three partners, including Ernie Polsom, Bob Turley, and Glen Sanders. "Ernie has served as the fire chief in several western Canadian cities. Ernie also spent many years working for the Office of the Fire Commissioner in Alberta, where he assisted many First Nations Communities. He enjoys the pleasure of connection to First Nations by marriage and family. He is deeply concerned about fire safety and other issues in First Nations Communities in all regions of Canada."
Freelance Writing by Malcolm 'Mack' McColl in 2023
Image courtesy FireWise Consulting