Original Published on Sep 11, 2022 at 21:55
By Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
THUNDER BAY, ONT. — The 2022 FireCon event was held in Thunder Bay with more than 235 volunteer firefighters from across Northern Ontario travelling to the city to receive firefighting training and certifications.
For more than 30 years, Emergency North Training (ENT) has offered training for emergency first responders and firefighters in the North that would otherwise entail significant financial resources and travel to southern Ontario. The event returns to Thunder Bay this year after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most of the training was taking place on Friday and Saturday at the Thunder Bay Training Centre, Murillo Fairgrounds, and Gary’s Towing with exhibits, vendors and conferences taking place throughout the weekend at the Victoria Inn Hotel & Convention Centre.
Mark Tishman, the executive director of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, says people have come from all over the province to take advantage of this learning opportunity.
“That’s what FireCon really is all about,” Tishman said. “It’s about proper training that’s accessible and affordable, for the northern departments, but especially for the volunteer departments as well. Firefighter training is unfortunately extremely expensive . . . and anytime we can all get together and get multiple departments to train as teams it helps to bring down the costs for the municipal governments or their local service boards or however each individual department is funded.”
Unlike the other emergency services, firefighting funding is directly borne by the municipal taxpayers, by the local services boards or by First Nation communities, he said.
David Paxton, deputy chief for Thunder Bay Fire Rescue, agrees with Tishman and says many of the fire departments don’t have significant budgets to operate on or train with. Opportunities like this where the equipment and instructors are brought in to help by the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office and the contributions by the different fire departments enable the organizers to create this learning opportunity that smaller fire departments would have a challenge doing.
“By sharing those resources and creating that opportunity, a department that has a very limited budget can send two or three people here, and then bring that knowledge back and train internally and share some of that knowledge,” said Paxton, adding that they received a financial boost from the Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC) to help with event costs.
“We applied for the CEDC tourism grant based on what we’re going to bring to the community with out-of-town guests, hotel occupancy, the vendors that would be here and the potential economic impact of this weekend,” he said. “We were successful on some funding to help offset some of the costs to the attendees, which is what this is about, making it affordable training. A large portion of this group are volunteers, so they’re doing it on their own time, they’re not getting paid and they’re very passionate about their career in the profession.”
What’s changed recently is the end goal certification, Paxton said. He explained that in the province, the legislation has changed to mandatory certification for each specific job duty.
“Whether you’re a volunteer or professional full-time firefighter, it doesn’t matter if you do the job all the time, you need to be certified on that task. So we offer that here,” he said.
Eligible firefighters attending FireCon have an opportunity to complete their accreditation and receive their certification in three different areas this weekend.
Tishman added that the new certification regulations of mandatory minimum training standards are fully supported by the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC).
“We are fully on board and because of that, there’s been a renewed focus on improving all aspects of training making it more affordable and accessible, especially to our northern departments who have always struggled not only to maintain their volunteer numbers but to make sure that they’re trained properly,” said Tishman. “The OAFC has partnered with the Ontario Fire Marshall’s Office to create a volunteer recruitment and retention working group for that specific reason to find new strategies, methods and best practices to ensure that departments that rely on volunteers can continue to bring in the proper amount that they need.”
He said 30 years ago if a volunteer came on duty to the fire department, they were handed a pager and told, ‘good luck on your first call.’
“That’s unacceptable,” he said. “We want to make sure that not only the Ontario public is kept as safe as possible, but the volunteers who are out there trying to help them have to be looked after as well. And if they’re not properly trained, then everybody’s at risk.”
Another important component of the conference is the trade show that features many companies from all over Canada who are on-site providing fire services access to new tools, technologies, and lifesaving equipment available for today’s fire service.
Tishman says they work closely with their vendor and industry partners, especially the Canadian manufacturers to make sure that they know what the fire service in Ontario needs and that the avenue of communication is open between a manufacturer’s needs and the user’s needs.
“With all the lockdowns due to COVID, there’s been a lot of issues in the manufacturing sector with supply chain issues that have affected the fire service just as much as every other aspect of society,” he said. “Because of that, we’re seeing increased costs on all lenses, and we’re doing the best we can. And having events like the trade show at FireCon gives the manufacturers face-to-face conversations with the fire chiefs and the frontline firefighters who use those products.”
Paxton added that they’re not just looking at a catalog online.
“They get to see it, pick it up and handle it. Some of the northern firefighters go back to their rural communities and make recommendations to their chief officers,” he said. “That information, especially for smaller departments that don’t have the same administrative support and capacity, can really benefit from some of the research done for them by the FireCon participants so they can make some decisions or focus on a solution for something.”