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Between Alarms July 2010

For years, many fire departments have opted to provide emergency medical services in conjunction with traditional fire/rescue responsibilities. Some jurisdictions also incorporate other roles into their members’ repertoires: technical (high angle) rope rescue; hazardous materials/dangerous goods response; vehicle extrication; general training; confined space entry/rescue; fire investigation/inspection; fire prevention; water (swift/slow) rescue; airport fire fighting; industrial emergency response; and even public education.

July 6, 2010
By Jesse Challoner

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For years, many fire departments have opted to provide emergency medical services in conjunction with traditional fire/rescue responsibilities. Some jurisdictions also incorporate other roles into their members’ repertoires: technical (high angle) rope rescue; hazardous materials/dangerous goods response; vehicle extrication; general training; confined space entry/rescue; fire investigation/inspection; fire prevention; water (swift/slow) rescue; airport fire fighting; industrial emergency response; and even public education. These additional jobs force firefighters to be Jacks or Jills of all trades but masters of none. There are positive aspects to adopting this framework though; consistency in different types of responses, improved communication and versatile skill sets among members.

Most metropolitan areas have separate departments to provide different response services. These major centres typically have large population bases from which to draw qualified personnel, and a large tax base from which to elicit overall funding.

Unfortunately, this system can cause a disconnect. Department members may seldom work together, victim/patient care transfers across many hands, and information transfer can be challenging. However, this can be positive too, as members have the opportunity to become very proficient in their particular areas of expertise. These departments normally have an abundance of resources at their disposal on emergency scenes and do not heavily rely on personnel to be multi-faceted. This system also takes advantage of spreading the load over multiple personnel and departments due to high call volumes.

Conversely, in smaller municipalities, there is often a need for the cross-training of personnel and a widened scope for provision of emergency response. This can be due to limited personnel resources, demographics in the region (population density), or overall funding issues. Another often overlooked reason for departments to employ cross-trained personnel and maintain a structure suited for multiple response capabilities is consistency in service. Members often work with the same co-workers and develop positive chemistry on scenes and at the hall. Information transfer improves because of smaller crew sizes and word of mouth about calls can travel department wide. Members also have more exposure to a variety of response types, which helps to build experience and expertise where call volume may be relatively low.

That being said, many departments are moving to a structure under which members have increased responsibility on responses – not just fighting fires and executing rescues but also providing first response (or full spectrum EMS) and multiple other services. With increasing roles to fill in a constantly changing environment, how does a member maintain proficiency in all areas, and what is the driving force behind the decisions to add more “hats” to the traditional role of a firefighter?

I am not a politician and I certainly have no special insight as to why fire departments are taking on more comprehensive response capabilities. Perhaps some of the reasons are linked to increased population density, economic adversity, available personnel and consistency in service. Whatever the reasons, I believe that the increased role we play in emergency response is positive but has aspects that require our full attention. Specifically, we must be sure to keep up on changing trends regarding equipment and technique, and we must ensure that appropriate and applicable training takes place in all areas of our job, not just the most prevalent aspects. This can pose a problem because of limited expertise and time constraints but these challenges can be overcome by implementing off-duty training time and exploring options for specialized education, such as out-of-house train-the-trainer sessions. Individual members face many challenges associated with widespread responsibilities, certainly not the least of which is becoming overwhelmed by having to be proficient in multiple areas. This, too, can be mitigated by diligent training and not over committing to multiple teams or special task forces. This will support the mindset of being integrally involved, but not to the extent that we sacrifice safety.

Although the scope of our jobs is largely beyond our control, it is within our power to choose to be excellent at those jobs. As we become more heavily tasked, it would be easy to have a general working knowledge of everything but little in-depth knowledge of anything. That however, is not how the mind of a firefighter works; we strive to be the best at everything and we always want to be the one who gets tapped on the shoulder by our captain while he/she says “get in there and get it done”, because that captain knows we can and we will. For this to happen we must take responsibility for possessing the knowledge and skills of our jobs. It can be a tall order to maintain in-depth and expert understanding of the many facets of our job – let alone those specific to fighting fires – but a challenge is why many of us are here.

As the fire service and its expectations change – from jumping on the rig and expecting to put out a fire, rescue a victim or two and pass the victims off to EMS then head home, to the ever-present possibilities of performing in the ambulance, pulling a worker off of a 300-foot crane, wading knee-deep into noxious chemicals or going door to door executing inspections – we must change with it or be left behind. I believe that we all have the fortitude to step up and dig in, to be confident in all areas of our positions and to move forward with our departments, which offer so much more than fighting fires. Although that’s a heck of a good time too!

Jesse Challoner has been involved with fire/EMS since 2002 and has been with Strathcona County Emergency Services in Alberta since 2005. He is a second-year paramedic student and instructor at the Emergency Services Academy in Sherwood Park, Alta.  Contact him at jchalloner@hotmail.com


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