Ontario Fire College Closes – A Legacy of Fire Service Training
Article by J. Patrick Boyer
From Ontario’s inception, dousing fires and saving lives was a local matter. After all, who better to respond to emergencies than those closest to them?
Once communities did form fire departments, whatever training firemen got was still local, consisting of a welcoming word followed by learning on-the-job. A fire hall and gear were whatever cash-strapped councils provided. Cities hired and paid firefighters while smaller centres depended on volunteers. Such details paint the larger picture across Ontario.
The 20th century transformed firefighting as industrialization produced different fires which in turn spawned new equipment that required additional skills. In 1933 Bracebridge replaced its horse-drawn fire wagon and wintertime fire sleigh with a fire truck. Rock and Tom, the Town’s handsome team of workhorses, went to toil on Captain Wes Archer’s Browning Island farm, while teamster Aboil Leishman learned to drive the new truck.
During the First World War, and reflecting the evolution in firefighting by 1916, Premier William Hearst’s Conservative government established a provincial office to co-ordinate fire services. Hearst named Edward P. Heaton the province’s first fire Marshall and he was still holding the position almost 30 years later when Liberal leader Mitch Hepburn became premier in 1934 and began firing everyone appointed by Conservatives. By 1935 William J. Scott, a 35-year-old lawyer from Owen Sound, had become Ontario’s second Fire Marshal.
Scott designed a comprehensive plan to vastly upgrade firefighting and emergency civil defence responses in Ontario. Education and training of all members of the province’s fire services, organized principally through Ontario’s 450 fire departments, would be a two-track initiative.
One track would school fire officers, those who supervise and direct local fire brigades, devise strategy on-site to combat infernos and give orders. They would be taught and trained at one central fire college. The other track, for the much larger number of front-line firefighters who follow fire officers’ orders, would receive ongoing regional training by the FMO and in their own fire departments by officers who’d been to fire college.
Ontario’s premier Leslie Frost agreed with Scott that a special campus devoted exclusively to training and educating fire officers was needed. In 1949, Attorney General Porter introduced the Fire Departments Act in Ontario’s legislature, implementing Scott’s training policy. Section 17 authorized the Fire Marshal to establish, maintain and operate a central fire college for the training of fire department officers; establish and operate regional fire schools for the training of firefighters; and provide travelling instructors for firefighters. Costs would be paid out of funds the Legislature appropriated for these purposes.
On November 24, 1950 the Globe and Mail reported Premier Frost and Attorney-General Porter’s jointly announced “Ontario’s new training college for firemen will be set up immediately at the ranger school near Dorset.” In addition to programs featuring the latest firefighting apparatus and devices for the complete training of firefighters, civil defence training for fire departments was to be included in the curriculum.
In Cold War lingo, “civil defence” was shorthand for dealing with the aftermath of atomic bombing, including raging fires and deadly radiation.
Fire Marshal Scott emphasized these training schools, every other year, would bring all the region’s fire departments together for both awareness and training. Scott referenced the importance of measures ensuring the ability of neighbouring fire departments to work together. In tandem, converting over 103 different hose-thread sizes and 24 hydrant opening nut sizes across Ontario’s fire departments was a precedent-setting step that became a model for other jurisdictions. These steps and use of common standards across the province meant firefighters could, as Scott and Frost put it, “co-ordinate their actions” for “the effects of atomic warfare.”
Despite a fire college being authorized by the legislature, Ontario’s Fire Marshal had to keep pushing it, because the government seemed stalled. He had advised the premier and cabinet he thought Dorset was unsuitable. Its existing forestry facilities had other purposes. It was a small community lacking resources to support a college attended by thousands of fire officers each year. Even reaching the village straddling the Muskoka-Haliburton boundary was inconvenient in the early 1950s, with no railway or airport nearby.
But where was the college to go?
With his Fire Marshal opposed to Dorset, Frost simply turned to other more pressing issues. However, delay spawned a paralyzing tug-of-war for the increasingly coveted college.
Frost had to face Fire Marshal Scott in a 1956 high-stakes showdown over establishing the fire college. The dilemma was all about location, nothing more. Scott, too, wanted a central location in the province, but for strategic rather than political reasons.
Frost concluded Muskoka District could serve admirably – part of Ontario’s northland, yet convenient to populous southern Ontario where most fire departments operated. He understood perfectly how attending college in Muskoka would be seen by fire officers as a rewarding sort of working-vacation.
At Frost’s suggestion, Scott arrived in Muskoka to discuss locations with the District’s representative to Queen’s Park, Bob Boyer. MPPs did not attend sessions most of the year, as they do today, and continued to carry on their other work in their electoral districts.
That summer in Bracebridge, Boyer answered the phone in his editor’s office at The Herald-Gazette. When the man phoning identified himself, the freshman MPP suggested a more private place to meet. In the front room of Boyer’s Kimberley Avenue home, he readily agreed with Ontario’s Fire Marshal Scott that a provincial training college could be ideally located in Muskoka District.
Boyer recommended to Scott, the lands of Gravenhurst’s tuberculosis sanitariums would ideally suit a fire college. Gravenhurst was in Muskoka’s south, closest to Ontario’s populous counties and their many fire departments. Passenger trains reached the town several times a day. An airport was close at hand. The land in question fronted directly on Lake Muskoka’s limitless water supply for firehose training. He provided contacts, agreed to arrange an on-site meeting, and answered all the Fire Marshal’s questions about the town and its unused hospital facilities.
When well-pleased Fire Marshal Scott stepped back out onto the front verandah, a structure built in 1884, it momentarily seemed the entire plan for a fire college might come to naught. Scott was excessively portly. He signaled for his driver across the street, then began to heavily descend the heritage steps. The man’s great bulk on the top one was all it took for him to disappear. With a loud crash, the eminent person vanished amidst a rising cloud of wood dust. Boyer, his face redder than any fire engine had ever been painted, scrambled down into the rubble, just as the Fire Marshal’s chauffeur sprinted from the street. The MPP’s son, who’d eavesdropped on their entire conversation, rushed to help.
On August 15, 1957 the Ontario Government bought the Muskoka Free Hospital property from the National Sanitorium Association. Gravenhurst Mayor Wanda Miller and Muskoka MPP Bob Boyer were informed of this historic step for the province and District. Each felt triumphant.
Fire Marshall Scott’s pent-up desire to bring information and training to the fire service about civil defence, the aftermath of atomic war and risks of radiation generated the fire college’s first course in October 1957 – almost a year before he and Premier Frost officially opened the place. This component of the college’s curriculum would become a mainstay of fire service training and emergency planning for the next two decades.
Ten months after that inaugural course on atomic fire hazards, on the bright summer morning of August 22, 1958, Leslie Frost came over to Gravenhurst from his home in Lindsay to share with Fire Marshal Scott the long-anticipated opening of Canada’s first residential fire college, also one of the first in North America. On hand for this ceremony were some 300 Muskoka, Ontario, Canadian, American and international officials, as well as proud local citizens.
Various sanitorium structures – including Massey Hall, the Director’s Residence, and the Instructors’ House – would continue to serve the new institution.
The spartan dining hall, which seated 45, offered simple fare. Gravenhurst restaurants flourished. Many drinking spots in town also gained favour with fire college students, some with walls jubilantly displaying dozens of Ontario fire department crests. Swimming in Lake Muskoka from the fire college dock was popular.
As for Ontario Fire College, or OFC, itself, many more buildings and structures – from laboratories and firegrounds to more classrooms, a library, residences, and a fitness and workout room for staff and officer-students – would be added, reconfigured, and modernized, right up to 2020.
Through the 1990s, the college’s curriculum not only kept advancing in tandem with increasingly complex fire events and rescue incidents but expanded to training in corporate management of fire departments. The fire college forged partnerships with community colleges and provincial universities for courses in management and adult education including diploma and degree-related programs.
From the 1950s to the 1990s, Fire Marshal Scott’s two-track configuration for fire service training underwent plenty of reshaping. Emphasis on civil defence had faded.
Methods and equipment for firefighting and responding to other emergencies evolved over the six decades of the fire college’s existence, which gave rise to continuous advances in facilities and training programs.
Buildings were added and expanded to accommodate a student enrolment as it grew from about 200 officers in the early years to over 6,000 students enrolled annually in various courses and programs.
An example of the changing emphasis was the fire college’s “flashover unit,” designed to let firefighters view the all-consuming flash fire without the full effect of its intense heat. Great risks face firefighters from “flashovers,” the rapid significant increase in fire growth from a specific source to every other combustible object in the enclosed room or building, without actual flame contact, because intense heat has brought the objects to their flash point, usually temperatures from 500 to 1,000 degrees. The flashover is deadly for those caught in it.
Central to officer training operations was the multi-purpose Fire Technology Building, opened in 1967. Its amphitheatre-style classroom and fire engineer’s laboratory and offices were the main features. The fire engineer conducted investigations into fatal fires using fire-scene reconstructions and test burns.
A number of non-traditional classrooms were also created as demonstration labs for practical training of fire-prevention officers. For instance, the Alarm Systems Lab, with the many types and variety of alarm systems wired for demonstration purposes, enabled hands-on learning about the warning devices in high-rise office towers and residential apartments and condominiums, and in industrial premises.
Combating fires is the consistent core skill of fire services, developed at the college in tandem with other aspects of fire service work – from civil defence to rescue, responses to terrorist events, and administration of modern-day fire departments operating in a maze of government regulations and behavioural protocols.
In late 1989, three decades after the fire college opened, Director Garnet Schenk decided the college needed a library. He asked local resident Judy Humphries, a teacher/librarian, to open a small library. It would require just “a few hours a week,” assembling “a few books and fire journals in a small portable.” He’d bought the modest library’s used portable at a bargain from adjacent Muskoka Regional Centre, another provincial institution occupying another former sanitarium.
In January 1990, Humphries began as fire research librarian of the college. Within five years, the portable had been outgrown. College carpenters added a walkway to a second, double-width portable. By 2005, during a robust construction and expansion program at the fire college, a new library was included as part of the fire tech building.
When adding art to the Library in 2005, it became clear the affection and respect people held for Ontario’s Fire College. The Training Officers’ Association, Mnjkaning Fire Department and the Tel Aviv Fire Service – all donated artworks. Ontario Fire Marshal John Bateman added another original oil painting by Robert Bateman, his brother.
Continuously upgrading fire college facilities meant major renovations and additions in 2004 and 2005. A new entrance was constructed, a reception area added, and an atrium. A large classroom for 150 officer-students with embedded technology was added, its sliding wall able to convert the space into two classrooms. The original bays for fire apparatus and the mechanic’s office were fully reconstructed.
Starting in 1957 with first director D.E. Barrett, until 1990, the college’s succession of directors lived in what had once been the hospital director’s residence. In 1990, the entire building became the college’s administrative centre, with offices for the registrar and her assistant on the ground floor, with the second and third floor residential accommodation available for visiting dignitaries.
A new residence for officer-students opened in 1984, offering individual quarters for 100 students, common washrooms, quiet study rooms and a computer lab, continued to be updated and refurbished. In January 2020, all hundred student rooms were entirely refreshed with new flooring, drapes, beds, desks, chairs and lamps. Only a few were slept in since because COVID-suspended life as we knew it and then the government closed its fire college.
The 2004-2005 reworking of the fire college included a new road cut through bedrock to a slightly lower section of the property where a newly erected fire hall housed five apparatus bays, classrooms and an office. At this “Firegrounds” facility, combinations of officers and firefighters were trained to deal with a variety of scenarios, forming into platoons of four firefighters and one captain.
The Fireground included a high-rise burn-building, and a split-level suburban house, where flames roared up and pushed smoke out windows. Firefighters now had to deal with the situation, practicing various skills under direction of a ground commander, while a fire safety officer engaged rapid intervention teams and rehab officers in addressing the fire-fighting operation.
The fire college in recent decades saw the provincial government increasingly expand permitted use of its facilities for training others besides fire officers. Among these are the Ontario Provincial Police marine unit, the OPP’s Canine Unit, the Municipal By-Law Enforcement Officers Association, staff teams working on special projects for the Solicitor General’s ministry, as well as employees of the Attorney General’s ministry engaged on special assignments.
By the 1990s, leaders of Ontario’s fire service had begun pushing for fire officer education to be decentralized from Gravenhurst.
The college at Gravenhurst then created curriculum to these standards for all major positions within fire departments. To enable local fire departments and regional centres to offer provincial-standard teaching and training in their own communities, the fire college next partnered with Ryerson University and several community colleges to gain recognition for its courses so that fire officers passing them could earn certificates and degrees in their area of fire service management.
Launch of this fire college train-the-trainer program was a significant shift in what had been practiced from the college’s inception. For decades, officers who’d studied at the college in turn passed on their learning, and applied it themselves, in their own departments. This revamp now meant fire departments could teach the curriculum in-house, completed by several days of finishing-off instruction at the fire college.
These steps led to moving more and more of the program out of the fire college – not to existing local fire departments but to newly built regional centres.
By 2021, the college campus of 26 buildings included labs, classrooms, a library, a 100-person dormitory, full fire hall with fire engines, and many buildings for fire-training practice. To officially close the fire college doors for the last time this year may seem, to those who judged it had completed its mission, just a necessary formality. To others, this current event is seen differently: a wrenching, unnecessary and even irresponsible end to a training facility evolved and operating with resounding success.
As a reminder of the human cost of service to community, the Firefighters Memorial on a grassy knoll in the heart of the campus enshrines in memory those in firefighter ranks who perished while carrying out their duties. Each October, it also became site of a memorial service, held in conjunction with simultaneous services at the provincial firefighter monument at Queen’s Park.
As reminder of the power of individuals to think, act and leave the world a better place, the splendid heritage building anchoring first the Free Hospital and then the fire college was renamed “Scott Memorial Hall” in 1962, two years after the death at age 60 of Ontario’s remarkable Fire Marshall William J. Scott, OBE, Q.C. His ardent desire to improve fire services during 25 years in public life had many dimensions, beyond being the individual most responsible for the fire college’s existence, all stemming from his resolve to better equip others for perilous work in front-line emergency service.