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Communication breakdown

It has been about a year since a freakishly fast wildfire devastated the municipality of Slave Lake, Alta.

June 11, 2012 
By Stefan Dubowski

It has been about a year since a freakishly fast wildfire devastated the municipality of Slave Lake, Alta. For the last 12 months, organizations that were involved in battling the blaze have been mulling over those frenetic May days, trying to piece together what happened, why and how.

In a presentation at the Fifth Canadian Public Safety Interoperability Workshop in Ottawa late last year – and in follow-up interviews earlier this year – representatives from the Province of Alberta, Calgary Emergency Management, and Alberta Health Services discussed communications during the fire: what worked, what didn’t, and what needs to change in case something like Slave Lake happens again.

The fire began on May 14, 2011, and quickly spread due to high winds and little precipitation. By May 15, news outlets were reporting that 30 per cent of the municipality had burned. Numerous firefighting teams from across the province and the rest of Canada arrived to help. By May 28, the fire was finally out. In the end, the town hall, 372 houses and six apartment buildings were destroyed.

Today, Patrick Henneberry is director and registrar of accreditation and certification within the Office of the Fire Commissioner in the public safety division of Alberta’s Municipal Affairs department. But during the Slave Lake fire, he was the director of central operations for the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA). He described some of the communications challenges firefighters faced in Slave Lake.

One issue was radio communication. All agencies arriving to help beat back the fire used different radio systems, so inter-organization connectivity was difficult.

“We had to source radios,” Henneberry said, explaining that otherwise there would be no way for the agencies to communicate effectively.

Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (ASRD) – the province’s natural-resources stewardship department – stepped forward with about 100 extra radios to distribute among firefighters. But the organizations also had to buy “several thousand” batteries for the equipment, Henneberry said.

What’s more, the crews had to reconfigure the radios, noted Tom Sampson, deputy chief of Calgary Emergency Management Agency. The radios weren’t programmed for the Slave Lake area, so while the SRD’s own teams could talk to each other, communication among SRD and other organizations was still difficult. “We struggled to reprogram the radios on the fly,” Sampson said.

Communicating information to Slave Lake’s residents was hampered as well: the local radio station was destroyed; the town’s Telus communication hub was out of commission, too. Firefighters managed to staunch the blaze at the cell phone technology centre, but the water that was used to put out the fire severely damaged the equipment.

“The concept of a single point of failure really struck us here,” Sampson said.

Lacking the local radio station, residents logged on to Facebook for updates.

Meanwhile, incident managers had to meet face to face three times a day in the operations centre to update each other on the situations in various parts of the town, Sampson said.

Trevor Maslyk, executive director for Alberta Health Services, said that even though the Telus network was out of commission, his BlackBerry proved to be invaluable for connecting with one of the emergency workers in the field.

“The only way I was able to communicate with him was through BlackBerry Messenger – and it worked,” he said.

Alberta is deploying a new Harris voice communication system that will give all of the province’s first responders the chance to operate on the same radio network, so in the future, interconnectivity won’t be as big a problem as it was during the Slave Lake fire, said Curtis Brochu, transformation consultant with Alberta First Responder Radio Communications System (AFRRCS).

But the solution isn’t just about the technology, he said. It includes new governance models designed to ensure that organizations using the network can voice their concerns and participate in ongoing network improvements. It also incorporates new operating procedures and training.

With respect to the Slave Lake fire, another issue became apparent in the Provincial Operations Centre (POC) in Edmonton, where response co-ordination efforts were underway. As the POC moved from Level 1 to Level 4 during the first few days of the situation, the people in charge realized that the automatic call-out system wasn’t doing its job. Henneberry pointed out that the technology, designed to send a message to government employees compelling them to come to the POC, wasn’t contacting everyone it was supposed to call.

“That showed us that we are in need of a refresh,” he said, adding that a new system is in place now.

A new system had to be devised for the reporting hierarchy during the incident as well, Sampson said. While the proposed communication chart for emergencies employed a matrix structure with cross connections among various stakeholders, that proved to be cumbersome in Slave Lake, resulting in situations whereby individuals would report to provincial agencies, and the agencies would try to impose their solutions on the operations centre.

The answer: establish the operations centre as the top of command, Sampson said. That helped the communication flow, and ensured that everyone was on the same strategic page.

Sampson pointed out that the response to the Slave Lake fire was a team effort. Many believe the frontline firefighters played a particularly important role. Members of the RCMP saluted the firefighters as they left the area in late May, according to news reports.

Henneberry echoed the feeling. “It’s my personal belief that the firefighters were the heroes of Slave Lake. I tip my hat to them.”

Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.

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