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April 22, 2013
By Laura King


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April 22, 2013, Toronto – If you’re like me, you probably spent a lot of time in the last week trying to absorb the mayhem in Boston and the City of West, Tx.

April 22, 2013, Toronto – If you’re like me, you probably spent a lot of time in the last week trying to absorb the mayhem in Boston and the City of West, Tx.

We could discuss the selfless actions by first responders in both situations, the seemingly seamless co-operation among myriad agencies in the manhunt that followed the Boston bombings, the insanity of gunfire in a suburban neighbourhood, and the stupidity of having a fertilizer plant in a residential area (shades of the Sunrise Propane explosion in Toronto in 2008). But that would take all day.

So, some thoughts.

I always shake my head when I hear politicians speak to firefighter groups or chiefs conferences about the fact that first responders “run into burning buildings while everyone else is running out” – it’s a standard line in speeches written by bureaucrats who don’t get what first responders do, so they look up what the previous speech writer pulled together for the minister/opposition-party critic/mayor, and cut and paste the catchy parts.

I shake my head because, for the most part, that line is not accurate. While the phrase may still ring true from 9-11, which, in fact, caused the North American fire service to re-evaluate running into burning buildings, we all know the stats: rarely do firefighters get calls for structure fires, and even more rarely – with today’s lightweight construction and highly combustible contents – do they run into them. Pre-plans and size-up and IMS have become standard practice. But last week in Boston and West, Tx., first responders of every stripe ran toward fire, explosions, debris, blood, body parts, and the unknown. They risked a lot to save a lot. 

While President Obama said that first responders displayed grit, compassion, civic duty and courage, the CBC talked to Bruce Ramsay, a retired firefighter from North Vancouver and a traumatologist (a new word for me) with the Justice Institute of British Columbia, who explained why paramedics, police and firefighters reacted the way they did and what we already know: first responders, Ramsay said, are often dedicated people who have “high control needs”, meaning they value being in command of a situation. Not to make light of tragedy, but do you know a fire chief who doesn’t have high control needs? I don’t.

Ramsay further explained to the CBC that through training, emergency workers learn how to suppress their emotions at a scene, which allows them to operate in crises.

Finally, Ramsay said, through repetition, first responders have their training drilled into them "so that it becomes almost automatic."

So, the CBC deduced, in a crisis, when instinct takes over, first responders are more likely to react professionally.

That’s no surprise to us. But it’s a bit of interesting insight for the rest of the world.

Two things struck me in the coverage from Boston that I watched Friday night: that searchers in the helicopter above Watertown, Mass., used a thermal imaging camera (TIC) to confirm that there was someone holed up in the boat in the backyard – I had a TIC in my hand in Peace River, Alta., a couple of weeks ago, being shown how far the technology has come – this particular TIC could take still images and pictures around corners; and the applause of residents when first responders drove out of Watertown after capturing the second suspect.

Some municipalities are cutting budgets for first-response agencies, and Ottawa has pulled its funding for Canada’s heavy urban search and rescue teams (although fire-service leaders are working to have that money restored), yet we have fresh Canadian examples such as the Elliot Lake mall collapse, the Slave Lake wildfire and this week’s floods in Ontario that demonstrate the need for co-ordinated response teams, specialized training, and interoperability.

As I read and heard so many times last week, from Boston and West, Tx., it was their worst day.

Given that fire chiefs and other first-response leaders in Alberta are pulling together their own all-hazards response team because there is no provincially or federally co-ordinated unit, there’s an inquiry into the roles and the response to the Elliot Lake collapse, and federal funding has been cut for the HUSAR teams, what would happen on our worst day? 

After 9-11, Ottawa and some of the provinces made commitments to improve and strengthen our capacity to respond to and recover from major emergencies, yet there continues to be a lack of leadership and support from both levels of government. There is no uniform national incident management system, there is no uniform national training curriculum or standard, there is no national interoperable communications system, there is no national exercise plan and there is no sign that governments plan to live up to those promises. For the most part, all we have are bureaucratic plans that remain untried, untested and un-improved.

What would happen on our worst day?

Now, to shift gears.

Greg van Tighem is the fire chief in Jasper, Alta., and a bit of a fitness nut.

I remember standing with Chief van Tighem at the more-than-hearty breakfast buffet at the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association conference a couple of years ago, looking at the bacon and sausage, and wondering where we could find the yogurt and fruit.

This morning, Greg leaves from Wikenburg, Ariz., for an almost month-long cycling journey up Route 93 to Jasper. His mission? To raise awareness of and funds for Multiple Sclerosis.

As Greg explains on his web page – www.endms93.com – Jasper is the northernmost point on Route 93; Wickenburg is the southernmost. There are 2,700 kilometres between the two – and lots of fire departments, which Greg plans to visit.

Greg calls himself a born-again biker and an MS ambassador; he has raised more than 145,000 for MS in the last seven years. (Click on the What’s this all about? tab on his website to find out more.)

We’re going to post Greg’s blog on our website for the duration of his journey. We’ll learn more about MS and a lot about stamina and cycling in the desert heat; we’ll meet some firefighters, and, maybe, we’ll be inspired to support Greg’s endeavor and embrace some new challenges of our own.

Given the events of the last week, it seems like a good time to consider such things.


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