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Handling the heat: Brampton fire chief Bill Boyes on juggling doctoral studies with leading the brigade

October 20, 2021

By Perry King

Brampton fire chief Bill Boyes in uniform and standing in front of a red fire truck while holding his Fire Chief of the Year award

Bill Boyes, who was recently named Canadian Fire Chief of the Year, is using his OISE doctoral studies to explore how the Ontario fire service can improve diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels — from frontline responders to chief officers (photo courtesy of Bill Boyes).

Bill Boyes, the fire chief for the City of Brampton and doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, never shies away from juggling multiple challenges.

In his work, he leads hundreds of firefighters—about 550 of them. At the helm of the City of Brampton’s Emergency Management response team, he is also working with public institutions to ensure his city mitigates the spread of the coronavirus and excels as a city to work and live.

This ongoing effort has garnered praise for Boyes. In September, he was awarded Fire Chief of the Year by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) and the Fire Underwriters Survey of Canada. The award recognizes excellence in the fire services industry across Canada.

“To be named Fire Chief of the Year for Canada is pretty awesome—especially given COVID-19 and its challenges,” said Boyes, who is working part-time on his doctoral dissertation in OISE’s department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education. “I feel very honored.”

His duties as chief are not the only thing on his plate. In addition to caring for two young children in his spare time, Boyes’ dissertation focuses on the professionalization of the fire service in Ontario. He wants to explore a new path forward for the profession. In particular, he wants to understand how the service can become more diversified and equitable so that it reflects Brampton’s diverse population.

“I believe we have a long way to go, but how do we get there? How do we move forward? Why are we where we're at now?” said Boyes. “That's what I want to try to uncover. I want to see if we, through a qualitative lens, can try to make some improvements in our fire service because I think it’s important for the sustainability of an essential public safety service.”

When he looks at the Ontario fire service, Boyes sees tremendous opportunity to improve diversity, equity and inclusion across all levels, from frontline responders to chief officers in leadership roles. Professor Leesa Wheelahan, Boyes’ dissertation advisor, says his work has a social justice lens because everyone should have access to these occupations and because firefighters can't do their job unless they reflect the community for which they're drawn.

“Bill is trying to transform his own occupation so that it's more inclusive, that it represents the community, but he's also trying to think through what it takes to work in that occupation,” said Wheelahan, a professor in OISE’s department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education.

Wheelahan has watched over other PhD students who come from emergency services. For her, it’s a chance to make an impact in these essential professions and fields. “For me, having students do PhDs in these areas are of fundamental importance to understanding, renovating and rejuvenating our public institutions,” she said.

She praises Boyes’ focus and has been working with him on his research since he began his studies here a couple of years ago.

Boyes and Wheelahan meet every couple of weeks to talk about what he is reading, and how its helping him understand his topic. “He is very theoretically sophisticated. He’s open and ready to consider a range of perspectives,” she said.

Boyes wants to directly apply his studies to his work, citing the need for more thought on the kind of education that firefighters need—as well as the need for a regulating body and a code of ethics as possible paths forward for fire services like Brampton’s.

“One thing about the fire services is that our roles are expanding so much that we're getting into things that the fire service wasn't involved in decades ago,” said Boyes, who is a third-generation fire chief.

“We're frontline on emergency medical responses where we are seeing the devastating impact of COVID. But we also do things like technical rescues, hazardous material response, and non-emergency services like public education.

“The term firefighter is such a misnomer,” he adds.

Ultimately, Boyes wants to make an impact—starting in the Brampton and Peel region but resonating in fire services across Ontario and beyond.

“There are very few, if any, chief officers who have a PhD, so it will be quite an achievement if I can do it. I hope to give something back to the fire service and leave it stronger for future generations,” Boyes said.


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