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April 11, 2013, Peace River, Alta. – For those following my delayed-planes, planes-with-mechanical-problems, no-planes-at-all, and, finally, a great-big-737-full-of-tired-and-cranky-Grande Prairie-bound-passengers adventure, I finally arrived in Peace River at 0215 Wednesday morning – 0415 in Toronto, where I had started the day 23 hours earlier. Nuff said.

April 11, 2013
By Laura King


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April 11, 2013, Peace River, Alta. – For those following my delayed-planes, planes-with-mechanical-problems, no-planes-at-all, and, finally, a great-big-737-full-of-tired-and-cranky-Grande Prairie-bound-passengers adventure, I finally arrived in Peace River at 0215 Wednesday morning – 0415 in Toronto, where I had started the day 23 hours earlier. Nuff said.

Thanks to the incredibly good graces of Deputy Chief Kieran Moore of the Grande Prairie Fire Department – who, like me, gets his caffeine from Pepsi products and drove me two hours north to Peace River at that ridiculous hour (and then drove back home again!) – for his patience and good conversation. Given the hour, my end of the banter was uninspiring and consisted mostly of single-syllable responses and a lot of nodding while counting coyotes (not kidding) along Highway 2.

There are 43 volunteer firefighters here for Drager’s two-day modified LiFTT training program (you can see photos from yesterday on my Facebook page) that includes fire behaviour/rollover, RIT, offensive fire attack/interior lines, and Drager’s System 64 (vehicle fires) and precedes the Peace Regional Fire Chiefs Conference this weekend. (Incidentally, the conference program notes that I am the keynote speaker Friday morning – I’m well aware that I’m speaking at 8:30 a.m. but the word keynote was a bit of a surprise! I think it’s one of those better-to-beg-forgiveness-than-ask-permission situations . . . right chief?)

More than a dozen departments are represented here this week, including Peace River, Mayerthorpe, High Level, Grand Cashe, Fairview, Sexsmith, Fox Creek, Grande Prairie and the County of Grande Prairie – one is career, one is composite and I can explain the political and operational challenges of each (but I won’t!); that was part of the conversation with my Grande-Prairie-Peace-River chauffeur Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.

The two-day hands-on training session here is the fourth stop on Drager’s Live Fire Training Tour, or LiFTT – the first three were in Wellesley Township and Saugeen Shores in Ontario, and Florenceville-Bristol, N.B. Rich Graeber, the fire chief at Upper Pine District in Colorado, is the senior trainer; Graeber has been coming to northern Alberta for five years to teach and mentor. “It’s the people,” he told me Wednesday afternoon while explaining why he ventures so far afield – Peace River is 486 kilometres north of Edmonton.

I get it. What struck me today – besides the incredible terrain around the mighty Peace River (more on that below) – was the bonds among the fire chiefs and other emergency-service leaders in this region where mutual aid can be 85 kilometres away, as it is for the High Level Fire Department, and few firefighters ever see a structure fire.

Training here is just as critical as it is for busy urban departments. Regional training is not new – FDIC Atlantic, which I’ve written about here many times, is a great example of regional co-operation. But out here, geography is an issue. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island could all fit neatly into northern Alberta, and chiefs here have been driven by the Slave Lake wildfire in May 2011 to find ways to co-operate and provide manpower and expertise.

Last night, I sat in on a meeting about a northwest Alberta regional mobile team. The all-hazard, Type-3 incident management team (IMT), which would respond primarily to wildland/urban interface fires at the request of the municipality, is still in the concept stage but the will to create it is strong and support from the Alberta government seems to be forthcoming, although with a considerable amount of detail work yet to happen. You can find a great explanation of IMTs here.

High Level Fire Chief Rodney Schmidt sent crews to Slave Lake in May 2011. They left High Level on the Sunday evening (the fire started Saturday), and rotated in and out for three weeks.

“We saw a real opportunity for that type of event to be repeated and for this [type] of a team to be created,” Schmidt said. “It’s a group of individuals with various expertise who can be brought in quickly to help.”

Essentially, the group agrees that it makes more sense to send key people from several departments or areas who have extensive incident management training and other expertise to major incidents, rather than entire crews that leave home departments short staffed. And they’re mentoring each other – those who know about structural firefighting are teaching wildland firefighters about the urban interface, for example, and vice versa.

“We have to have an integrated team that can go and help,” said Colin Lloyd, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, who sat in on last night’s meeting. “It’s all about augmentation and enabling a local department to have confidence in its ability, and they bring in a special team as they see fit . . . I think this will fit into a much larger strategy.”

Back to the geography. Or, actually, topography. The Peace River townsite is almost 300 metres below the surrounding terrain. That terrain is remarkable – at least to an east-coaster seeing it for the first time; it sounds corny but it really does look as if glacial ice was peeled back and left gentle, rolling hills in its wake. Even more corny – it’s kind of . . . peaceful.

The Peace River is still frozen and, according to locals, is probably a week away from breaking up. But while my friends and family brace for a storm today – I’m watching City TV from Toronto; Kevin Frankish is standing outside where hail is bouncing off the cars, and school buses have been cancelled in most of the GTA – I’m heading out for Day 2 of training. It’s cold this morning but it’s a dry cold, and today’s training will take my mind off the fact that apparently I’m keynoting tomorrow morning . . .


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