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Comment: March 2010


March 15, 2010
By Laura King


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Brad Patton wrote about platooning in our June issue, wondering if the opposition in his department to the suggestion that only some volunteer firefighters would get paged out to certain calls was simply because people don’t like change.

Brad Patton wrote about platooning in our June issue, wondering if the opposition in his department to the suggestion that only some volunteer firefighters would get paged out to certain calls was simply because people don’t like change.

“You would have thought I had sold their homes and families and drunk their last beers,” Patton said of the reaction to the idea to cut down on unnecessary page outs.

Patton is the chief in Centre-Wellington, Ont., and our straight-talking Volunteer Vision columnist. He proposed platooning to his crews – meaning that only half the station’s firefighters would be paged out for carbon monoxide and medical alarms. Everyone would still be paged to all other alarms – fires, motor vehicle accidents and rescues. There were howls of protest and the issue was dropped. But the logic remains. Just under half of the calls at Centre Wellington are what Patton describes as platoon calls or alarms that require low manpower.

“The ambulance is sending just two people, so why am I paging out 25?” Patton asked in his column.

Good question. And one that was asked by municipal councillors in Caldeon, Ont., who got wind of complaints by some of the area’s 245 volunteer firefighters that they were getting burned out from going to so many low-manpower calls. With volunteer recruitment and retention an issue in many communities across Canada, it seemed to make sense to try to figure out a way to reduce the stress on volunteer firefighters and the interruptions to their work and family lives.

After much research and discussion, Caldeon Chief Brad Bigrigg instituted a four-month platooning project, the results of which are explained in our cover story starting on page 14. While it turned out that platooning wasn’t right for Caledon because of logistics issues, there is an understanding among some fire service leaders that it’s time to take a hard look at dispatch systems given the considerable changes in the roles of the fire service in the last 20 years.

The types of calls to which fire departments respond have shifted significantly but the dispatch system that was established to respond to structure fires – paging out a full contingent of firefighters – is still the norm.

Chilliwack, B.C., which is blessed with a plethora of volunteers, used a platoon system for a while – and it worked. Its volunteer numbers dropped a bit and it went back to the old system but the template for the platoon structure is in place and can be reinstituted.

Platooning does not mean the chief is in cahoots with the municipality and is trying to cut volunteers’ pay. It’s just a more effective way of managing a response so that 20-plus volunteers aren’t woken up in the middle of the night or called away from their day jobs to respond to a minor incident.

As Patton said:  “I thought, who wants to get paged out at two in the morning for a CO alarm when there is no chance of making the responding apparatus? You get up, get dressed, rush down to the hall, place a tick beside your name so you get paid and your attendance is recorded, then go home back to bed. Or, perhaps you leave your employer to figure out how to get along without you while you go down to the station just to sign in.”

It’s time for a paradigm shift. Welcome to the 21st century.


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