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May 15, 2012, Toronto – After a couple of days respite from the road, I’m heading back to Midhurst tomorrow for the coroner’s inquest into the four fire deaths at the Muskoka Heights retirement home in Orillia in 2009.

May 15, 2012
By Laura King


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The inquest was on a break last week during the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs conference but resumed Monday, with testimony from OFM operations manager Dennis Gannon, (you can read the full story here) and Jim Jessop, the deputy chief in Niagara Falls, Ont. – the province’s most ardent code-enforcement proponent.

There was confusion this morning about some of Monday’s testimony, primarily surrounding the number of firefighters necessary to rescue residents. The Orillia Packet & Times reported that Gannon indicated there should be two firefighters and a “director” available for every resident who needs rescuing. This caused a bit of a flap, as this ratio appeared to be news to the entire Ontario fire service. (In addition, the use of the word director caused concern, as director is a known fire-service term only in Quebec).

I wasn’t at the inquest yesterday, so asked the Office of the Fire Marshal for clarification, and spoke with Gannon by phone this afternoon.

He explained that he was referring to a normal response for a rescue, which would involve two firefighters and a fire officer. In the case of Muskoka Heights, with 20 residents, should all of them have required rescuing, there would have been a deficit of 12 firefighters.

“I was referring to a normal response – not a particular type of building or structure,” Gannon said. “Our practice is for two firefighters and an officer to go into the structure; the officer is in control, and the firefighters are controlling the fire and searching. Should they discover a victim, it would normally take two of them to remove that victim, and a third person controlling the fire and making sure their escape is safe.”

Which goes to show a couple of things: local papers reporting occasionally on a complex issue sometimes miss some of the context; and how volatile this inquest is for the Ontario fire service.

Watch for news and tweets from the inquest tomorrow.

Our 2012 Career Expo (we’ll have to change the name because we’re running another one in September, which is still in 2012!) on Saturday in Cambridge, Ont., was a sold-out, resounding success. It’s cliché, I know, but the 115 pre-service students, graduates, hopefuls, and a handful of folks with a bit of life experience who are looking for a career change, were wowed by our lineup of speakers, the vendors on hand, and the overwhelming amount of down-to-earth advice meted out by chiefs, firefighters, human resources experts and fitness gurus.

Kory Pearn’s becomingafirefighter.com – the cornerstone of the career expo – has morphed into a one-stop-shopping opportunity for potential firefighters to find out what chiefs are looking for in recruits, how to improve fitness and firefighter test scores, what to do – and what not to do – in interviews, and to gain a better understanding of the politics and expectations of the fire service.

The fire chiefs and deputies, and vendors who spent their Saturday – voluntarily! – at the expo, did so because they believe in the future of the fire service.

I was thrilled to see a group of students from the pre-service program at Conestoga College at the expo – a group I had spoken to in February about fire-service journalism and who will, I have no doubt, be fire-service leaders.

You can see our Career Expo photo gallery here.

Stay tuned for details on our fall expo, on Sept. 29. You can sign up here to receive information when it’s ready – we’re finalizing details.

The aforementioned inquest, the Meaford trial (which we’ve covered extensively in previous blogs and news stories) and the charge against trainer Terry Harrison in the death of firefighter Gary Kendall during an ice-water rescue exercise in Point Edward, Ont., in 2010, remain top of mind for many in the Ontario fire service.

Harrison’s trial began on May 8 but was adjourned to May 29.

A decision in the Meaford trial is expected in July or August.

The inquest continues for another couple of weeks.

There’s no doubt that fire officers worry about the what ifs: What if there’s a fire at a non-sprinklered retirement home in my jurisdiction? What if the there’s a firefighter injury or death in my department during a response? What if something happens during training that I approved or contracted out?

There are big-picture issues that chiefs want help understanding. Part of the role of the OAFC’s new chief operating officer will be to connect “with OAFC members regularly on current and emerging issues and providing support to members on issues.”

The job posting closes May 31 and there’s considerable speculation about who will fill the position, with the name of a former OAFC president (and new FFIC columnist – hint, hint) popping up repeatedly at last week’s OAFC conference. You didn’t hear it from me . . .

The Slave Lake fire was a year ago this week. We’ve got a great story coming in our June issue about the force behind the fire – the wind – that explains how and why the fire was so difficult to contain.

You may remember Fire Chief Jamie Coutts’ account of the fire in the July 2011 issue of Canadian Firefighter and EMS Quarterly. Jamie spoke at the OAFC conference last week – for about two hours! – about the challenges, the devastation, the decisions, the emotions, the co-operation, and the throw-the-egos-out-the-window lessons learned.

As stories keep landing on our website of dry conditions and wildfires, it’s worth re-reading Jamie’s first-person account – you can do so here.

And for those of you attending FDIC Atlantic in two weeks, make SURE you sign up for Jamie’s presentation – I was going to say it will blow you away, but that’s a rather of a bad pun for a wind-driven wildfire. It will, however, make you think and leave you in awe over what the small contingent of volunteer firefighters in Slave Lake endured before reinforcements arrived.


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