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July 13, 2012

Toronto hires new fire chief, but still short 100 firefighters

Do you know what a dozen is? Its 12, correct?

Well what if you went to the grocery store and bought a dozen eggs, came home, opened the carton and only found 8 eggs where there was supposed to be 12?

Well that is the situation for Toronto's Firefighters.

Toronto is missing 100 firefighters thanks to Mayor Rob Ford's budget cuts in 2011 (which came into effect in 2012). A lot of firefighters lost their jobs.

And now Toronto is getting a new fire chief. City staff announced yesterday (July 12th) that James (Jim) Sales had been hired as the new fire chief for Toronto. His previous 27 years experience includes serving as the general manager of community operations for the City of Barrie for 2008 - 2012, and the commissioner of community and fire services in Markham from 2001-2008 and previous to that, the fire chief for Markham from 2000-2001... And last but not least fire chief for the City of Edmonton from 1998-2000. Sales started off his career as a firefighter and EMS responder.

And we wish Jim Sales the best of luck (today is Friday the 13th) at his new job because he is going to need it. With a shortage of 100 firefighters what happens when there is a huge emergency?

eg. A huge fire like the 200 Wellesley fire or the huge Queen Street West fire?

Lets take for example the 335 Yonge Street fire from January 2011. It was a 6-alarm fire that took the manpower of 125 firefighters... and it was only a 3-storey building.

200 Wellesley was also a 6-alarm fire and was only a single apartment building. The problem was the firefighters weren't prepared for the size of the building because of how underfunded the Toronto firefighters are.

And now they're even MORE underfunded. Yes, okay, they have a new fire chief. Whoop-dee-do. He was probably hired for his experience in laying out pink slips and cutting back on "the gravy train" as Rob Ford likes to call it.

Yes, it is true that Toronto doesn't have as many fires as we did 100 years ago. People have become smarter, equipment better designed, etc so we have less accidental fires now. More brick and cement buildings helps too. But lets not dwell on the past.

We're talking about right now.

Toronto's fire service is underfunded, understaffed and just to make a quick prediction it wouldn't take much for a disaster to happen.

The 200 Wellesley fire got started due to a cigarette in an overcrowded apartment belonging to a hoarder (you know, the type of person who doesn't throw out old newspapers).

So lets imagine for a moment the same thing happens again. A hoarder leaves for the weekend. They leave a cigarette burning in an ash tray. It slips onto the floor and lights the carpet on fire... next thing you know the stack of newspapers is on fire...

And depending on when anyone notices the fire it could spread pretty quickly.

Now under the current plan being pushed by the city then Toronto's firefighters will just have to work overtime to replace people who were fired and not replaced (yes, the irony of firing firefighters). But consistently working overtime means a tired out workforce. Accidents happen. Higher chance of overworked firefighters being sent into dangerous situations they can't handle.

So taking all of this account what happens when you have understaffed, underfunded, overworked and exhausted firefighters?

Well here is some historical examples:

1906 - San Francisco USA earthquake + fire. The entire city is pretty much destroyed.

1917 - Halifax Canada, the largest man-made explosion before the atomic bomb. Killed 2000 people, injured 9000, burnt most of the city to the ground.

1923 - Kantō Japan earthquake + fire. Over 140,000 people killed in the blaze.

1945 - Tokyo Japan, WWII bombing raid caused the largest urban conflagration in history. Over 100,000 killed.

1947 - Texas City USA ship explosion + fire. 600 people killed.

1948 - Fukui Japan earthquake + fire. 46,000 buildings and houses destroyed.

1953 - Shek Kip Mei Hong Kong fire. 58,000 people homeless.

1961 - Bukit Ho Swee Singapore. 16,000 people homeless.

1988 - Lisbon Portugal fire. Seven square blocks of houses destroyed, 1000s homeless.

1995 - Kobe / Hanshin earthquake + fire. 6,400 people killed.

2003 - Canberra Australia fire, over 500 homes destroyed, 1000s homeless.

2011 - Manila Philippines fire, 8000 people left homeless.

2011 - Kesennuma Japan earthquake + fire. The entire city is pretty much destroyed.

Now admittedly Toronto isn't in a region known for earthquakes like Japan is, nor are we at war, and most of the city is spread out.

But that doesn't mean we should cutback on our firefighters, overwork them and hope that a disaster won't strike. Its the same reason why people get insurance. Firefighters are our insurance in the event a serious fire ever happens.

And it doesn't have to be a huge city wide fire to be a disaster. Even several city blocks would be enough to leave thousands of people homeless and Toronto's infrastructure would be sorely tested.

"Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone." - Jack London after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

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