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Canadian fireslayers: Andrew Brassard remembers the high-pitched squeal he heard on July 27, 2006

Andrew Brassard shudders when he remembers the high-pitched squeal he heard on July 27, 2006

December 6, 2007
By Laura King

fireslayers_10570Andrew Brassard shudders when he remembers the high-pitched squeal he heard on July 27, 2006, when he and partner Steve Ellis were combing through a burning house in Milton, Ont., at about 5 a.m., looking for someone who had been sleeping when the fire started in the adjacent garage. The cry sounded like a child begging for help and spurred the two firefighters into a frantic search of the basement, where they thought the sound had come from. Turns out, the noise was a cat.

PHOTO COURTESY LAURA KING

"At the exact same time, we thought we heard what sounded like a 10-year-old boy crying for help," says Brassard, a professional firefighter for five years and a volunteer for a year before that. "It's like it was yesterday, as clear as day. It sounded very muffled but it sounded like someone crying for help."

In the chaos of the smoke and darkness, Ellis says the cat's cries sounded like someone yelling "Help me, I'm down here", rather than the whine of a distressed feline.

The cat bolted as soon as the door to the basement was opened, scaring the wits out of Brassard and Ellis. But seeing the cat come from the basement convinced the firefighters that someone was downstairs. With zero visibility because of smoke and darkness, Brassard began a hand search while Ellis used a thermal imaging camera.

Within seconds, the MSA Evolution 5200 camera picked up something sticking out from under a blanket on a futon. The image turned out to be Matthew Grant's leg. The 21-year-old had been working on his SUV in the garage that evening before having supper and hitting the sack. His parents were out of town and there was no one else in the house.

"It was fortunate that he did leave a part of his body sticking out," says Ellis, a full-time firefighter for six years and a volunteer for three. Otherwise, the search might have taken considerably longer because the thermal imaging camera may not have picked up a body that was covered by bedclothes.

With a massive rush of adrenaline, Ellis and Brassard whisked Grant up the basement stairs. Almost a year later, the two still talk about how Grant was probably able to walk out of the building but the two firefighters were so hyped up they carried him anyway. Grant was conscious but disoriented. He thought he'd had a massive asthma attack and didn't yet realize the house was on fire.

Brassard's mask was dislodged in the process of getting Grant up the stairs and he swallowed some smoke but otherwise both firefighters were unscathed. Grant was airlifted to hospital in Hamilton, Ont., and was treated for smoke inhalation and minor burns but released the next day.

Brassard and Ellis were presented in May at the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis with the 2006 Fireslayer of the Year Award by safety equipment manufacturer MSA of Pittsburgh, Pa. The "fireslayer" title may conjure images of superheroes and indestructibility but mostly it garners respect.

MSA rep Trevor Picard, a firefighter at Milton's No. 2 station, spearheaded the voting drive for Brassard and Ellis for the fireslayer award. Brassard and Ellis are the first Canadian recipients of the award, which was presented in 2001 to the New York City Fire Department. Sharing the award with the NYFD is humbling, Brassard and Ellis say. A donation of $5,000 has been made to the International Association of Fire Fighters' burn foundation on behalf of Brassard and Ellis. Brassard and Ellis also received the medals of bravery from the province of Ontario.

Ultimately, Brassard and Ellis, whose experience has clearly brought them closer as friends and colleagues, emphasize that their training paid off in the rescue.

"As we turned on to the street we could see a column of smoke rising from the house," Brassard told MSA, "and we knew this was the fire we had always trained for."

Milton, a bedroom community of about 54,000 northwest of Toronto, has one full-time fire truck and 20 full-time firefighters plus about 80 volunteers. Brassard and Ellis were first to respond to the call at 444 White Dr., with a volunteer truck arriving shortly thereafter. The garage was fully engaged when the crew arrived and the attic and second storey of the house were on fire when the firefighters started their search of the upstairs.

"It was so hot our masks were fogging up and condensation was forming on the inside, "Ellis said. The ceiling began to cave in but by that time the two firefighters were sure there was no one on the top floor.

Brassard feared the worst for the young man whom he and Ellis pulled from the basement and was overwhelmed when he learned that Grant was OK.

"I've never been in that situation before, where I know there's somebody in there and I've got to go in and find them," Brassard said. "I didn't really look at it as a traumatic experience, I looked at it as, that's my job, that's what the community expects of me and that's what we're there to do."

Health Dangers
Meth labs aren't the only new challenge facing fire fighters; so is the threat of bird flu. To date, such a pandemic has yet to hit North America, but the experts seem certain that its arrival is only a matter of time.

When this does happen, Chief Garis is worried about the impact on his department. "We had a situation where one of our engine companies was exposed to the Norwalk flu virus, which quickly spread throughout the company. The loss of manpower due to illness set us back," he says. "We responded by disinfecting the affected station and taking other measures to prevent the spread of the virus, but it was alarming just how much this "stomach flu" could have hurt our ability to maintain our regular level of service and fire suppression."

Rapid Growth
Fort McMurray, Alta., and the surrounding area are undergoing a construction boom, thanks to all the oil being extracted from the Tar Sands. "We've heard that the Americans would like to see oil production ramped up to five million barrels by 2020," says Jeff Carlisle, regional fire chief of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. His department (Regional Emergency Services, or RES) includes the Fort McMurray Fire Department (FMFD), which also supports and trains six volunteer departments in the region. "This means tremendous growth in terms of buildings, facilities, and population," Chief Carlisle says. "Already, there are 15,000-20,000 transient workers coming in and out of our community on a rotating ‘six days in, six days off' schedule."

Not surprisingly, the FMFD is not big enough to protect the remote industrial and residential complexes being built by the oil companies, especially because its primary mission is to protect Fort McMurray (population 60,983). Meanwhile, the six volunteer departments have their hands full trying to keep up with the growth in and around their communities.

A case in point: The FMFD provides the ambulance service for the entire region, which explains why the turnaround time for ambulance calls "can be up to 6 to 8 hours, depending on where the patient is," says Chief Carlisle. "We just don't have the resources to keep up with the phenomenal growth."

Responses
Faced with all these challenges, fire departments are scrambling to fight back.
Central to their responses is training, says Chief Don Warden. He is chief of the Wasaga Beach (Ontario) Fire Department, and director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Canadian Division.

"Compared to past years, today's departments are putting in much more time training their firefighters," Chief Warden says. "Whether the threat is CBRN, HAZMAT, or just new equipment, today's training is making firefighters better prepared for the challenges out there."

When it comes to meth fires, research is underway to find better and safer methods for fighting them. For instance, Alberta's Fire Commissioner's Office has "led a process that saw the development of a first responders guide to clandestine labs and grow operations to assist fire departments in the development of response, mitigation and safety protocols for clandestine labs and grow ops," says Ernie Polsom, the FCO's Assistant Fire Commissioner-Operations.

This excellent guide can be found online at www.municipalaffairs.gov.ab.ca. Among its recommendations are for meth lab fire fighters to wear SCBA, Level A chemical protective suits; have proper gas monitoring equipment at hand, and to station a complete decontamination team and related equipment nearby. Similar equipment can be used to deal with health threats such as bird flu and SARS.

As for the challenges caused by rapid community growth? In Fort McMurray, the FMFD and other local agencies have responded by creating extensive Mutual Aid agreements with first responders working for the oil companies. "The idea is for us not only to work together, but to individually acquire tools that everyone can use," says Chief Carlisle. "Collectively, this gives all of us access to a broader and more complete range of fire suppression equipment."

"We have also developed a regional HAZMAT response team manned and funded by government and four oil companies," he adds. "This approach is so much more cost-effective and operationally sound that each agency maintains their own small HAZMAT teams."

At the end of the day, new challenges in fire suppression can be dealt with through a combination of research, training, smarter tactics, and modern equipment. Still, the problems noted above make clear that fire suppression is an ever-evolving art; one that has to keep pace with social, economic, and criminal progress.


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