The Chief of The Ottawa Fire Services

Jan 26th, 2018 | By | Category: Connecting With, On The Cover

The Ottawa Fire Service (OFS) has been kept busy this winter. News reports about area fires have been plentiful. It is a mammoth challenge for the firefighters working to keep our community free of fire devastation. The responsibility falls directly on the shoulders of Ottawa’s Fire Chief, Gerry Pingitore. Mary Cook talked with Chief Pingitore, and learned what it is like to head the OFS.

Y@H: Can I assume you worked up through the ranks to become Fire Chief?

CP: Yes, in my 40-year career I was very fortunate to be able to come up through the ranks, serving as both a career firefighter with the City of Nepean and a volunteer firefighter in West Carleton at the same time. I then became a Chief Officer when the City of Ottawa amalgamated nine municipal fire services. Since the newly amalgamated OFS became a composite department, both career and volunteer, my experiences helped me to manage the similarities and differences of the two distinct delivery models. Ultimately, I believe that experience helped me to become the Fire Chief of the OFS.

Y@H: What drew you to fighting fires as a profession?

CP: My early career choices lead me to a medical background.  First working as an operating room technician followed by training as a Paramedic.  It was during my Paramedic training, which included an introduction to rescue techniques, that I found myself drawn to a career as a firefighter.

Y@H: As Chief, how many firefighters are you responsible for? How large is the service?

CP: The City of Ottawa is protected by 864 career firefighters and 546 volunteers, who serve an area over 2700 kms, while responding out of 45 stations. All supported by a Fire Prevention and Public Education Division, Training Division, state of the art Dispatch Communication Division, administrative staff, and a Fire Management team.

Y@H: There have been many important fires featured in the news recently in Ottawa and in Ontario. Is it fair to say there is an increase in fires this year?

CP: It is too early to accurately gauge if there is a true increase in fires. However, the media has helped Fire Services capture the full attention of an audience that may have discounted the importance of fire safety in the past.  Fire Prevention programs and messages have always been a fundamental part of OFS.  Fire Code violations are easily enforced but other fire safety precautions, such as checking your smoke and carbon monoxide alarm, are the responsibility of the homeowners. Recent fires have encouraged residents to make fire prevention a priority in their busy lives.  Homeowners, landlords and residents are receptive to fully understand their role and responsibility for fire safety.

Y@H: Can you walk our readers through what occurs when a fire station receives a call?

CP: Remember, OFS is a composite department, which involves firefighters staffing fire stations in the urban/suburban areas while areas that are more rural have volunteers who are paged into stations for incidents.

Let me start with a call that occurs in the urban/suburban area.  Our Dispatch staff receive a telephone call and select the closest best fire station and apparatus to respond to an incident. The fire station gets tones/alarms in its building and firefighters spring into action to staff the apparatus. The emergency vehicles then make their way to the scene.  In rural areas, the process differs in that volunteer firefighters receive a pager message on their pagers. Volunteer firefighters then advise Dispatch if they are responding to the fire station or directly to the scene of the incident.  Some of those firefighters report to stations to ensure emergency vehicles with the necessary tools are responding.  In both cases, firefighters are updated by OFS Dispatch staff regarding the nature of the incident and any relevant updated information that will help firefighters best respond to the emergency while matching the resources to the specific risk.

Y@H: Is there any way of determining the seriousness of the fire before sending out the trucks?

CP: In some instances there are ways to confirm that an incident is a true emergency. This is where the information provided by bystanders is crucial. Persons that witness an emergency are our eyes and ears to the emergency. Here are tips for those who call 9-1-1.

Call 9-1-1 as soon as it is safe to do so. Your first priority is to get to safety then make the call.

Remain calm. Take deep breaths to help you focus.

If safe to do so – remain on scene and make yourself visible. This will allow first responders to find the incident more rapidly.

Stay on the line, answer the questions from Dispatch staff and remain on the line until advised to hang up.

Y@H: Is there one type of fire that seems to be more prevalent in Ottawa than others?

CP: There are trends that are province-wide rather than city specific.  In addition, some types of fires have been repeat offenders throughout the length of my career with a few unique trends here and there. However, the numbers still point to kitchen fires as being in the top three types.  One change I have observed in my career is fires related to smoking.  Although indoor smoking fires still occur at an alarming rate, Fire Services are now faced with the added devastation caused by poorly discarded smoking materials in outdoor spaces.  A pet peeve of mine is persons extinguishing cigarettes in planter boxes or flowerpots only to have the moss ignite and fire spread to the deck and/or home.

Y@H: When the media report on a second or third alarm fire to residents, what does that mean?

CP: Alarm levels are typically determined by a few different criteria.  In most instances, the alarm levels increase when additional resources (apparatus, specialized equipment, tools) or staffing is required because of the size or intensity of the fire.  In all cases, the Incident Commanders managing the scene determine the alarm level. If they arrive and see a fire escalating, they then increase the alarm level. In some cases, it is incremental and progresses from a regular assignment to a second, third or more alarm. Occasionally, crews arrive on scene to a fire that has escalated rapidly and the Incident Commanders initiate the alarm level they see fit.

Y@H: What should homeowners do to keep their homes safe from fire?

CP: Ottawa Fire Services has an online brochure available for homeowners which can be downloaded at: documents.ottawa.ca/sites/documents.ottawa.ca/files/2016-053%20FireSafety_Brochure.pdf

Firstly, the document lists safety tips surrounding cooking, smoking, barbequing and other miscellaneous topics. The main points contained in the resource consist of homeowners installing smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in their home. The maintenance and testing of these life-saving devices after installation is also vital to a family’s safety. Next, the brochure offers tips on how to develop a fire escape plan.  When an alarm sounds the key is to evacuate quickly and safely. Once you are out of your home – stay out!

Y@H: Are smoke alarms mandatory now?

CP: They certainly are! Every home in Ontario must have a working smoke alarm on every level of the home placed outside all sleeping areas. What is also important to note is that carbon monoxide alarms are also required in every home in Ontario if there is a fuel-burning appliance, fireplace or attached garage.  The alarm must be installed adjacent to each sleeping area in the home.

Y@H: How often should these alarms they be checked?

CP: We strongly recommend that alarms be tested monthly by pushing the test button. To make sure your batteries are always fresh, change them when you change your clock in the spring and fall.  Replace your alarms if they are older than 10 years or as required by the manufacturer. It is the homeowner’s responsibility to install and maintain smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. In a rental unit, it is the landlord’s responsibility to comply with the law. A tenant of a rental unit must notify the landlord if a smoke or carbon monoxide alarm is impaired or not operating.

Y@H: Evacuation, I would think, is key to escaping a fire unharmed. Should every home have an escape plan? Where does a family start with an evacuation plan?

CP: Every family and home should have an evacuation plan. Here is what OFS recommends when developing a Fire Escape Plan.

Draw a floor plan of your home showing all possible exits.

Where possible, plan a main exit route and an alternate exit route.

Establish a safe meeting place outside your home where everyone can meet.

Make certain everyone understands if they hear an alarm or someone shouting, “fire” they should immediately evacuate the home.

Discuss your escape plan and practice fire drills with everyone in your household. This is the best way to prevent panic, especially among children. Be sure every family member knows what to do.

Practice with your family and include your pets. However, do not spend extra time searching for animals in an emergency.  Evacuate immediately and do not return inside your home once you are outside. Notify firefighters when they arrive that you have pets in your home and they will do their best to safely search for them.  Once out – stay out!

Y@H: Firefighting is a dangerous profession; tell us about the training that firefighter recruits undergo before staffing a fire station.

CP: Training for firefighters is a lifelong and ongoing commitment in order for them to stay safe, stay healthy and keep their skills sharp. Those selected as career firefighter recruits undergo twelve weeks of intense training with the OFS Training Division before starting their careers as a probationary firefighter.  Recruits are involved in practical training as well as theoretical training during those initial months. Volunteer firefighters mirror the same training program over a longer period. When they start in a fire station, they continue with similar training via online modules, shadowing experienced peers, participating in formal training exercises as well as taking personal ownership of continuing education should they aspire to specialize in a particular field of firefighting.
Again, firefighting is a lifelong engagement and training is fundamental no matter the rank of the firefighter.

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