Where there’s smoke …

Public education in fire safety goes beyond prevention to include escape planning and firefighter response support. Both can significantly affect outcomes, especially in Cottage Country.

by Lisa Harrison

In addition to teaching fire prevention measures, firefighters help property owners understand the importance of escape planning and helping fire crews travel to a scene and swing into action as quickly as possible.

This knowledge takes on greater importance in rural areas. For a start, the traditional early warning from neighbours isn’t always possible. The nearest neighbours may be too far away, or their view too obscured to give an early warning of fire. A distant fire may have started overnight and have destroyed the property by the time neighbours are awake.

Owners of this secluded cottage destroyed by fire were not home to hear the smoke alarm. Neighbours were too far away to notice the fire and call it in until the hot water tank exploded. A remote-monitored warning system could have alerted the owner immediately and given firefighters more time to put out the fire.(Photo submitted by Minden Hills Fire Department)

Then there’s the travel distance. In the County of Haliburton and the District Municipality of Muskoka, fire departments are managed by the municipalities within each region. Communities in the City of Kawartha Lakes are served by the city’s fire department. Collectively, these departments must cover a total of 11,069 sq. km. (2,735,209 acres). All of these departments operate with volunteer firefighters, who may have to travel long distances from home to the station. Add to this the distance from the station to reach a fire on a remote property, along with other issues.

“Some of our travel distances are 30kms from the hall to the site,” says Nelson Johnson, fire chief for the Minden Hills Fire Department (MHFD).

“This is due to geographic issues such as the 300 and more lakes in our area. These lakes mean that there are no roads straight to the cottage and we may have to drive around the lake to get there. The other issue is property on islands with water access only. We have to travel by boat, including transporting fire or medical equipment and personnel.”

Response time issues are magnified in winter, which is also the season when the risk of residential fires rise with the use of heating devices. Private or unassumed roads may not have been plowed. Snow may have covered the property’s 9-1-1 civic address sign. A property with water access only must now be accessed over ice.

Early warning from a distance

To address the rural early warning issue, firefighters recommend installing some form of electronic notification system, ideally one that is monitored. One property owner who had installed a Google Nest system and a camera received an alert on their phone while travelling in Australia and immediately called the MHFD.

“We arrived and the fire was contained to one bedroom, saving their $500,000 home and contents,” says Johnson.

When green means yield

Fire safety education programs include information about other ways in which community members can help firefighters reach the scene as quickly as possible. For example, motorists generally know to yield the right-of-way to fire vehicles with flashing red lights. Fewer drivers are familiar with the flashing green light that volunteer firefighters can use in their personal vehicle, and firefighters are working to change that.

flashing light. Also, “the light is a courtesy light and does not allow the driver of the vehicle to break any Highway Traffic Act or other traffic regulations,” says Tony Van Dam, fire chief for the Georgian Bay Fire Department (GBFD) and fire coordinator for the District Municipality of Muskoka.

“However, these lights are important to alert other traffic to behave with courtesy and pull over if able and safe to do so as the firefighter is responding to an emergency.”

The GBFD has another tool for reducing response times in the form of a lock box program that enables them to enter the dwelling immediately upon arrival in the absence of the owners.

Firefighters also can move into action more quickly when property owners keep their 9-1-1 civic address sign clear, cut back the brush around the driveway and keep the driveway plowed.

“To be a volunteer in the fire department means being active and being a part of the community,” says Johnson. “This means that the community has a role in fire safety also. Community members must be active participants in any fire safety program.”

Planning to stay safe

“When you hear a smoke alarm, you may have less than two minutes to get everyone outside and safe,” says Terry Jones, acting chief for the City of Kawartha Lakes Fire Department.

“If a fire occurred in your home tonight, would your family be able to get out safely? It is important that everyone know what to do and where to go when the smoke alarm sounds. Take a few minutes and plan a home fire escape plan with everyone in your home.”

And then rehearse it every month.

“Creating and following a fire safety plan allows for the occupants of the building to plan and understand their roles and responsibilities during a fire situation,” says Van Dam.

“This includes early warning detection devices such as smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms on every floor and outside sleeping areas as well as a fire escape plan that is developed and practised.”


Guidelines for creating a fire safety plan are available from:

• Province of Ontario, ontario.ca/page/fire-safety-home#section-1

• Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, oafc.on.ca/public-safety

• National Fire Prevention Association, nfpa.org/Public-Education/Staying-safe/Preparedness