Mitigating Fire Incidents in First Nations Communities

Aug 8, 2016

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, in its 2007 Fire Prevention in Aboriginal Communities report: “Fire incidence rates for First Nations are 2.4 times higher than for the rest of Canada. First Nations residents are also 10 times more likely to die in a house fire. The victims are often young children.”

Furthermore, in the "Indicator #15" section on burns and scalds, a 2014 Public Health Agency of Canada report states: “Almost one-third (31%) of all fire deaths in the Aboriginal population are in children (ages 1–14 years), compared to an average of 16% in the total Canadian population.” Based on these facts, 32 Indigenous children die for every 1.6 who die from fire-related injuries in the total Canadian population.

December 2015 – A home on Oxford House First Nation was completely destroyed in a morning fire. A father, son and cousin died in the blaze. (CBC Photo: Gary Solilak)

This alarming fire-related statistic exemplifies the risk found in many First Nations communities around Canada. The lack of fire prevention services, equipment and education available on reserves is a serious issue that deserves more public attention and immediate action.

The Government of Canada, specifically the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) provides approximately $26 million annually for fire protection services. This funding is provided to the First Nations, who in turn decide where they need the funding most. Funding is provided for equipment and infrastructure (fire trucks and fire halls), operations and maintenance of fire protection equipment as well as firefighter training.

Along with annual funding, the Government of Canada has recently released a refined version of the Joint First Nations Fire Protection Strategy, implemented in April 2016. Although this strategy was first established for 2010 to 2015, the numbers of fire related deaths in Indigenous communities is still a serious issue.

“Although the [previous] Strategy made progress in reducing fire related risks, both INAC and AFAC (Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada) recognized a need to have a more focused approach for: partnership for First Nations fire service; fire prevention education; community standards; and fire service operational standards,” states the introduction for the 2016-2021 Joint First Nations Fire Protection Strategy found on the INAC web site.

This strategy demonstrates promising initiatives from smoke alarm awareness campaigns to creating fire safety videos ($26 million annually is a significant amount of funding), however, observers question the amount of money being directly invested in the communities. Considering the enormous numbers of fire-related deaths that are still occurring, is this funding being put to its best use?

The scene of a fatal house fire in Pelican Narrows. Incidents like this prompted a need for better fire prevention strategies. (Photo courtesy RCMP)

Is there enough oversight associated with such government funding? There have been incidents in the past where unmonitored funds had been misused. For example, the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters (MANFF) was investigated over  mismanagement of federal funding that was intended to help 2011 flood evacuees. APTN, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and other news agencies reported about “outrageous” misspending (spending on romantic getaways and not paying the hotels that housed the evacuees). According to CBC News “… despite more than $90 million advanced to MANFF in just over two years, the organization did not produce financial records or bank reconciliations.” The Association has since been disbanded, but incidents such as these create negative perceptions and public backlash that can hinder support for Indigenous communities, particularly since the group funding was not stripped of its federal funding until November 2014.

Clearly the government must take responsibility for accountability so that First Nations communities do not suffer a repeat of this unmonitored funding fiasco.

The rural/remote challenge
Mostly in remote and rural locations, it is not hard to understand why almost every First Nations community nationwide is affected by a lack of fire response resources.

A 2012 report on the First Nations Community Fire Prevention and Fire Protection Assessment by the Manitoba Office of the Fire Commissioner and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs shows examples of how difficult it is to respond to fire emergencies. Out of 61 communities surveyed, only 8 have access to 911. Communities without access to 911 use a variety of methods to call for help (radio stations, house calls and local dispatch).

Even if all 61 Manitoba communities had access to 911, it would only notify the community fire department of an emergency. It does not notify the actual responders. Notifying volunteer fire responders in remote areas is a hugely understated problem and requires a dependable system. Currently, options are limited to contacting the volunteers with pagers, texting, local sirens, individual phone calls and radio stations. In an emergency situation, when time is limited and crucial, good communication and notification tools are extremely important.

Although notification systems for remote areas have always been challenging, it would be the first step to take in any emergency. A dependable notification system can save lives if done efficiently and quickly. Presently, there is no mention of notification systems upgrades in the Fire Nation Protection Strategy.

It is important to view annual funding provided federally as an opportunity to create partnerships that can create these tools and further awareness as well as education around fire safety.

First Nations Firefighter Competition  

The Manitoba First Nations Firefighter Rodeo took place in Dauphin, Manitoba over the August long weekend.  Eleven of the 63 Manitoba First Nation communities participated in an event that tests their abilities to fight structural fires in their communities. The winning team goes on to represent Manitoba in the national competition, which is being held this year in Six Nations, Ontario.

Warren Tkachuk is President / Managing Director at Achieve IP.