Emergency & disaster management
Alberta’s urban interface program trains firefighters for suppression and wildland
Tiered training program begins at the firefighter level and builds upwards
April 20, 2023 By Elena De Luigi
An Alberta firefighter training program has been making strides when it comes to the integration of wildfire resources across the province. The Wildland Urban Interface Structural Protection Team program trains firefighters to be prepared to respond to both wildland and urban emergencies.
The pilot program, which is still in its infancy stages and was modelled after the Slave Lake program, launched in the fall of 2019. At its inception, a $580,000 grant from Alberta Municipal Affairs through the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association was provided to two municipalities – High Level and Clearwater County – to cover operations, maintenance and wages per year, per municipality, for four firefighters who would work in their community and be available to respond to wildland emergencies, according to a town press release.
The main goal of the program was to develop a training curriculum in wildland urban interface to prepare local firefighters to be able to respond to emergencies both within the community and outside of it, including fire suppression, structural protection and wildfire mitigation.
“These guys are on call, essentially, through the entire wildfire season, from March through to the end of October,” said Rodney Schmidt, fire chief and director of emergency services for High Level . “Our teams are fully cross trained. They are Type 1 wildfire crew members as well as structural firefighters, and we have paramedics on the team as well. So, they’re a full package in terms of capacity when they arrive on a scene.”
Wildland urban interface field officers from the Alberta Emergency Management Agency work directly with the teams and municipalities, while Alberta Wildfire jointly provides direction on training curriculum development, pre-suppression planning, and deployments, if required. This means that when a municipality is having a wildland urban interface incident, they can reach out to either organization, and these teams are available to respond and build capacity.
“One of the biggest drivers for them is training municipal fire departments across the province. That’s a huge piece of what they do. They spend all winter developing curriculum … and those curriculums get rolled out and training is then planned across the province,” said Evan Stewart, deputy fire chief for Clearwater County. “It all kind of works into the framework that Alberta Wildfire and Alberta Emergency Management Agency work on and what they’d like to see response look like in the province for wildland urban interface.”
Schmidt said the province wanted to pull the best ideas out of other provinces and jurisdictions, like the United States and Australia, to build the Alberta program, which is partnership-based, meaning the province provides the funding for staffing, but the local fire departments provide the capital infrastructure to provide the response. These apparatus and staff members are in addition to the current roster of firefighters in the communities, and both Clearwater County and the High Level have to provide a Type 2 Sprinkler Protection Unit Trailer, and a Type 6 Wildland Engine.
“We took a look at all those areas and said, ‘okay, what should this program look like? And where are the best things?’ We did that for the curriculum development as well,” Schmidt said. “So, ‘what are the ideas that other jurisdictions use? And how do they fit into what Alberta wants as a model?’”
In terms of curriculum specifics, Stewart said it is a tiered training program, meaning it begins at the firefighter level and builds upwards. The initial base level of training is called the WUI members’ course. It’s a combination of two already well-formulated curriculums for structural fire fighting and wildland and wildland urban interface response.
The course focuses on wildland urban interface, safety of firefighters, wildland urban interface engine operations, wildland urban interface sprinkler protection, triage of properties, site preparation of properties, and integration with wildland firefighting units like air tankers, helicopters, unit crews and helitack crews.
Once a firefighter has completed the training program, they will be able to move on to a new program which is still under development but is expected to be rolled out by the end of the year. That training will be a single unit resource leader course for firefighters who wish to be an engine officer or a sprinkler protection officer.
Essentially, it would build on the WUI members program and prepare firefighters to be in charge of a crew working within a task force or division, while focusing on things like higher level fire behaviour, pre-planning, more site preparations and triage, strategies and tactics, fire line safety, human factors, and keeping other firefighters safe and effective on the fire line.
“It is truly an integrative program at the task level,” Stewart said. “We wanted to make the program built from the ground up, starting at the firefighter level. So, it is a culture change. It is a process that’s going to take five years to get the programs rolled out, another five years to get the training out as much as it needs to in the province so it’s intrinsic.”
As the program has developed, Schmidt said close to 500 firefighters across the province have been trained and have responded to several incidents across Alberta and British Columbia in the last several years. One of those was the fire north of Fort Chipewyan, in the northeastern part of Alberta, where both the Clearwater and High Level teams rotated in and out for a couple of months last summer doing structure protection with sprinklers by helicopter. Another incident was the Tomahawk fire in Parkland County in 2021, which was outside the forest protection area. The teams assisted with tactically evacuating people for several days.
Stewart clarified that response model does not allow for the teams to take over from local fire departments, but rather, the teams are a “stop gap” — a group of highly qualified individuals that go and assist when requested, either by Alberta Wildfire or municipalities and Alberta Emergency Management Agency and help make that system get bigger when they get on the ground and bring in mutual aid partners. They integrate directly with the Alberta Wildfire incident management team or the municipality’s incident management team, depending on where that fire is, and they work for the agency that’s requested them.
“These teams are on the road in roughly an hour from the time the call comes in and they can go anywhere in the province. During high season, the guys’ bags are packed every day, they’re ready to go. The trailers are hooked on really high hazard if they if they know things are coming, they’re ready to go immediately,” Schmidt said. “Our crew in 2021 left to British Columbia with two hours’ notice, and they were gone for a month.”
Schmidt noted that the two teams are a first strike in the program, but the overall goal of this program is to have a fully integrated system throughout the province to respond to both local and wildland emergencies. Over the years, the agencies have not been 100 per cent integrated, and the reports that come out of those incidents highlight that the main area of improvement is integration of resources.
“The aim of this program is to really have a good understanding of where we all fit in that big puzzle we call wildland urban interface, and I think the end goal for our municipalities, at least as part of the program, is to make sure this program works,” Schmidt said.
In the last several years, there’s been improvement in the province in terms of how those agencies integrate. This is in part due to the WUI training program and other provincial endeavours such as the new Alberta Incident Management System and the All-Hazards Incident Management Team which all try to work together as one group. The dream though, is full integration of all systems.
“The teams themselves are a pretty small piece of what the province of Alberta is working towards to be better effective at wildland urban interface response. And we’re lucky enough as the two municipalities to be a part of that,” Stewart said.
Both Schmidt and Stewart are hoping to expand the WUI program, but that depends on if the province provides more funding in the coming years. The money they’ve already received extends until mid 2025.
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