How one fire department is saving lives and defying odds

One First Nation fire department shows how having local government, private business and firefighters rowing in the same direction changes outcomes


Editor’s Note:

Wednesday's death of long-time fire service leader Cortez Lawrence was a great loss to our industry. I will miss him and offer my deepest condolences to his loved ones.

First Nation reserves in Canada have a long-standing and well-documented fire safety problem.

They have difficulty establishing and maintaining an effective firefighting force. Many of the homes and buildings on the reservations do not meet modern fire codes. And there’s a fair amount of poverty, which increases the risk of a home fire.

A Toronto Star investigation showed that since 2010, 173 people have died in fires on First Nation reserves. Furthermore, government data says half of First Nation fire departments cannot rely on their water supply, 20 percent have equipment and facilities rated as poor and 4 percent of the fire departments are nonoperational.

Nearly half of the communities, the data says, have little-to-no fire protection.

Other statistics show that First Nation reserves have 2.4 times more fires than the rest of the country and that those who live on reserves are 10 times more likely to die in a fire.

The Canadian and U.S. firefighting communities sat up and took notice of the First Nation situation two years ago when a fire killed two toddlers. Accusations flew back and forth over whether the neighboring volunteer department was contractually obligated to respond, which they didn’t.

We took notice again a year ago when a First Nation fire killed nine, including three children. In that case, firefighters had a truck but the community had no running water. And that was compounded by other chronic issues like substandard housing and poor health care.

It is unfair to make a direct comparison between the issues facing First Nation fire departments and the under-funded, under-equipped and under-staffed fire departments in the United States. Yet, the plight of First Nation is a stark warning of what can happen when fire services are woefully neglected.

It is also a stark reminder that the fire service does not live in isolation. We are inextricably intertwined with the overall health and condition of the communities we serve.

The First Nation fire service is in the news again and I’m hoping the fire service sits up and takes notice of this as well.

This time the story is not about tragedy, but about a fire service that is thriving and setting a course others can follow.

Six Nations Fire Chief Matthew Miller is facing the same problems as other First Nation fire chiefs, but he’s experienced only one civilian fire death since 2011.

And it’s not all because he’s lucky. He has a full complement of trained volunteer firefighters who respond when alarm sounds. He has six fire stations fully stocked with state-of-the art equipment.

Six Nations experienced the same struggles as have other First Nation reserves. But they turned things around.

Chief Miller gets his federal money using the same formula as other First Nation departments. The difference is he and his local government have built partnerships with local businesses to bring in more money.

They used some of that money to provide training, good PPE and new uniforms. That, Chief Miller said, instantly boosted firefighter morale.

The local government also put building codes in place and made sure every home had a smoke alarm.

Chief Miller says he attributes the department’s success to pride. I’m sure that’s true, partly.

What really stands out is the level of cooperation between local government and the fire department to do what’s best for the entire community. That local cooperation is replicable for all departments in all communities if the political will is there. The level of resources and options may be greater or lesser than what Six Nations has, but the model will work.

As we watch the year-after-year, escalating food fight that makes up our national politics, it is easy to forget that the value and power of getting things done locally. When fire departments, local governments, residents and business work toward a common goal, the result is less firefighter and civilian deaths. 

About the author

Rick Markley is the former editor-in-chief of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief, a volunteer firefighter and fire investigator. He serves on the board of directors of and is actively involved with the International Fire Relief Mission, a humanitarian aid organization that delivers unused fire and EMS equipment to firefighters in developing countries. He holds a bachelor's degree in communications and a master's of fine arts. He has logged more than 15 years as an editor-in-chief and written numerous articles on firefighting. He can be reached at Rick.Markley11@gmail1.com.

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