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Building relationships builds training opportunities

Edmonton Fire Rescue Services created great training opportunities through fostering community connections — here’s tips for how you can too

April 27, 2020
By Eric Smith

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Photo credit: Caleb Snee/Firefighter with EFRS

Edmonton Fire Rescue Services (EFRS) believes in four core values: service, safety, relationships and teamwork. These values, combined with continuous improvement, is not only a personal motto, but one that is supported and actioned by the entire department.

In my role as technical rescue coordinator with EFRS, I have established some great working relationships to improve our Technical Rescue Team (TRT). This is in part thanks to the working relationship and support from my superior, EFRS Special Operations Chief Bruce McWhinnie.

One of the main areas I’m responsible for is training our TRT members. In an effort to maintain fiscal responsibility, developing and pursuing community relationships for our team has proven to be highly successful.

The TRT is made possible by its 85 volunteers, which is seven per cent of our department’s 1,200 firefighters. The team operates out of Fire Station 3, with Rescue 3 and Pump 3 and TRTSU (support unit). TRTSU is an extra rig that is at Station 3 and only mobilizes for TRT events. Rescue 3 carries extra specialized TRT equipment, primarily rope rescue equipment. In addition to their regular fire crew duties, the team also serves to respond to TRT related events where they act in a support or specialty role.

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The TRT operates within eight distinct disciplines: confined space, embankment rescue, heavy lifting, highlines and offsets, pick-off rescues, rope access, structural collapse and trench rescue. The TRT is most generally dispatched to trench, collapse, confined space and heavy lifting type events.

■ Challenges
Living in the northern climate of Edmonton, where -40 C is a common occurrence, is a definite challenge. The balancing of TRT training allotments (includes maintaining all eight disciplines of TRT) within regular EFRS operations training can be immensely challenging. Fiscal restrictions and economic downturns present another layer of challenges. The key to overcoming these is in building and maintaining relationships. Relationships help navigate political pressures when these fiscal restrictions threaten to slow continuous improvement, disrupt normal operations and stagnate the advancement of the team.

Here are some of the relationships we have built that have fostered the training opportunities for our TRT unit.

West Edmonton Mall: One of the valued relationships we have is with West Edmonton Mall (WEM), who have allowed us to practice indoors and use their various attractions during the winter months. Some of the attractions that we have used for training include the world’s largest indoor roller coaster, the Santa Maria ship replica and a bungee tower and decommissioned water slide tunnel in the World Waterpark.

Support from WEM staff with the logistics of our training has been outstanding. In an effort to express our gratitude and foster the relationship, and with the support of our Training Academy (thanks to Bradley Hoekstra, deputy fire chief of training and logistics and dean of training, Melissa Creech), we were able to present WEM with a printed collage of photos taken during one of our training exercises in their facility by EFRS firefighter Caleb Snee. The result was an overwhelming and unexpected response from WEM management staff; an extra “knot” strengthening our relationship with them.

EPCOR (electricity provider): Our long standing relationship with EPCOR has been instrumental in the development of our trench rescue capabilities and traces back to the inception of the team. EPCOR even donated shoring equipment for our team, which we have since been able to upgrade. Our partnership still exists and is ongoing. EPCOR allows us to train on their site and provides trenches for our team. Some of the joint training includes EPCOR’s hydrovac trucks, so that our team is aware of the capabilities and limitations when working with those trucks. We are currently in the process of revamping our training to include more cross-training with EPCOR in efforts to gain and share knowledge and experience in this field. EPCOR has also supplied us with damaged concrete culverts and vaults that we utilize in our structural collapse and heavy lifting disciplines.

City carpenters: We established a working relationship with our city carpenters while researching replacement materials for trench rescue and building shoring. Their quality of work is second to none. The most current example is when city carpenter Sarah Davies worked on our training prop for confined space training. She was able to repurpose decommissioned lumber, completing the project ahead of schedule and with great craftsmanship. Davies also enhanced the project by making it stackable and easily transportable.

In an effort to increase our knowledge and safety around operating our newly replaced Milwaukee cordless tools, we arranged for a couple of senior carpenters to join us during structural collapse training to demo and provide information to the crews on how to be safe and more efficient when operating the tools.

Edmonton’s Technical Rescue Team responds to eight distinct disciplines and leveraging a variety of partnerships in unique training locations has helped maintain fiscal responsibility. Photo: Caleb Snee/Firefighter with EFRS

City Hall: Another relationship with the City of Edmonton exists with the employees based out of City Hall, who allow us to train inside the City Room for pick-off rescues. Not only does this venue provide a real-world scenario, but it also provides a different training scenario, an option for inclement weather and a high public traffic location, to list just a few of the benefits.

We have received very positive feedback from City Hall employees, bystanders and visitors of City Hall that watched the training. Our TRT members appreciate the challenges presented in real-world environments as new locations forced them to adapt. This in turn increases both their experience level and confidence level.

City welder: Our city welder Glen Oleksiw has amazed us with his ingenuity and fabrication skills time and time again. The bigger projects completed have been the fabrication of the securing system for our TRT trailer that houses our additional Paratech and trench rescue equipment. A more recent collaboration was the modification of our TRT Support Unit to make more efficient use of space to hold our Milwaukee cordless tools. Oleksiw has also been extremely valuable in providing training for our members on proper techniques when operating our Petrogen torch.

Hazmat: The other official specialty at EFRS is the Hazardous Materials Team. During our recent confined space rescue training, the Hazmat coordinator delivered an enlightening and pertinent lecture to our TRT instructors on air monitoring and proper use of gas monitors.

Peer support: A frequent call we respond to is for pick-off rescues to assist suicidal individuals from high places, most commonly from one of the many bridges in our 18,000 acre River Valley.

With the support of our fire administration team on the importance of mental health, the peer support team was created. One of the courses offered to the team is the ASIST course. The relationship we have with the Training Academy and our mental health coordinator, Toni Boyko, helped solidify the justification for TRT members to be included in this training course.

Our TRT team attends multiple suicide calls. Usually our members end up being the first point of contact, getting involved in conversations with people at risk. By taking this course, our TRT members now have the resources to manage themselves during these events. Not only has it benefited the team on successful event outcomes, but it also provides reassurance to the TRT member being asked to perform in these situations. It helps them with their own mental health after the event, be it a positive or negative outcome for the person with suicidal thoughts.

Due to the limited participant capacity of this course being offered, not all TRT members are able to attend. However, we continue to ensure that a couple members are selected to be included in each course. Boyko and one of her peer support coordinators, Jeff Deptuck (a long standing TRT member), was able to provide us with extra information and presented it to our members during pick-off rescue training. By adding Deptuck’s presentation to our training, we improved and advanced our patient care and rescuers well-being. This support and the ASIST course have been a huge improvement to our training in the discipline of pick-off rescues.

Peer fitness: Our relationship with Georgette Reed, EFRS peer fitness coordinator, is one we are also grateful for. We use the peer fitness program with the intent to reduce musculoskeletal injuries and develop warm-up routines for our team to perform prior to commencing the physical portion of the training. Based on the reduction of reported injuries during training, it has proven to be effective.

Modified duty: Numerous TRT personnel have worked alongside me during their recovery phase after an injury. This benefits the team by allowing for more productivity from the TRT coordinator office. However, I believe that the most important benefit is the one that contributes to mental health. Modified duty personnel are given meaningful tasks and opportunities to stay connected and current with the department, as well as with their brothers and sisters.

Team culture: At the end of the day, when the tones go off for a technical rescue event, we need to ensure that the relationship we have within our team — our TRT culture — combined with the confidence and competence derived from our training and experiences made possible by the aforementioned relationships — is solid.

■ Helpful tips when building community relationships
To build effective relationships with community partners means getting out of our silos and being willing to find and ask for those resources. It takes some effort and it would be easier to just continue to follow the normal of what has or hasn’t been done in the past, but the effort is well worth it.

Do some research before contacting the individual or business to find some common ground and learn about the products. If you have an idea or plan on how you could work together, save it until later in the week most people are generally more receptive to thinking about new things or saying yes. The closer it is to the weekend, when they don’t have all the stresses of returning to work on Monday, the better!

Almost 100 per cent of everyone I approached to collaborate with has been successful, so it definitely pays to ask. I had one local climbing gym that I was asking to support us and they were unable to strictly based on their own financial needs and availability for the space we inquired about, but I was able to find another one that gave us exactly what we were looking for.

Our department has done an outstanding job building relationships with the public so they support us as we continue to provide this service, and possibly because of this long-standing support, the majority of people want to help us. I think it’s just a natural feeling deep rooted in most human instinct to help. If they have the “ask” presented in a way that they can say yes, they usually go for it.

With the fiscal restrictions impacting the ability to attend seminars, conferences and training events, we lose the opportunity to network and build those relationships. Sometimes it comes down to making cold calls to make it happen.

Building relationships inside and outside the department is essential. Also focusing on having a solid team relationship in our unit has allowed us to safely and efficiently perform tasks in high-risk, low frequency events. We are the ones who respond to support Incident Command and on-scene crews — we are it. There are no other locally trained or equipped crews that we can call to support us. This is why we need to operate as an efficient, well trained team. And that too, is all built on relationships.

The “what” is the relationship, and the “how” is the communication, following through to the action; the direction from a leader. How to be successful is, as Daryl Black says, to “be a connected leader” — one that can communicate, build relationships, perform, build culture, earn and give respect, have people follow and be engaged.


Eric Smith is a 15- year member of EFRS and an 11-year member of the Technical Rescue Team. Smith is also an NFPA 1041-Level 2 Instructor, a previous Platoon Training Instructor and long-time Swift Water Summer and Ice Rescue Instructor. He is a husband and father to three young boys and a volunteer minor sports coach. Smith believes the biggest contributor to positive relationships is good communication.


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