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From floods to fires: In September 2005 the west coast of Newfoundland experienced severe flooding

In September 2005 the west coast of Newfoundland experienced severe flooding because of high rainfall in a relativity short period of time. One of the hardest hit areas was the Town of Stephenville.

December 6, 2007 
By Robert Lynch

floods_10569In September 2005 the west coast of Newfoundland experienced severe flooding because of high rainfall in a relativity short period of time. One of the hardest hit areas was the Town of Stephenville. By the time the water had receded, more than 100 families had been forced out of their homes. While this tragedy had a tremendous impact on residents it also provided a unique opportunity for the town's fire and emergency services.


All levels of government have been working on an assistance program to help the affected residents. One of the remedial measures involved the province purchasing up to 103 properties in an area that was designated as a flood zone. These structures were slated to be demolished with an excavator and the land restored. After much discussion, however, the government approved a plan to use the acquired structures for a major training exercise scheduled in September and October 2006. The training involved practical hands-on live fire training in acquired structures with a multi-discipline, multi-jurisdictional approach.

Newfoundland and Labrador Fire and Emergency Services Director Fred Hollett explained the initiative: "While this was indeed tragic for the area residents we saw an opportunity for a great deal of good to come from this flooding," he said. "The availability of a section of a town, a number of houses, streets, and all infrastructure in place is a rarity and we viewed this as an opportunity of a lifetime." He continued, "We approached municipal affairs and explained our plan and the benefits that could be gained from this venture. The minister for municipal affairs, Jack Byrne, threw his full support behind the project, even to the point of making extra monies available to municipalities whose firefighters wanted to attend a training session."

Live fire training, in acquired structures, provides the most realistic and challenging training possible. With this realism comes the risk of serious injury. To ensure that a high level of safety was maintained, NFPA 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, was used as a training guide. This required that all participants have approved personal protective equipment worn on site at all times. All SCBA must be NFPA compliant and the user must be trained in the operation of the set. All participants were required to have been trained to NFPA 1001, Firefighter I or the equivalent.


More than 200 firefighters attended the training sessions. Seven sessions were held, four weekend and three weekday sessions involving 125 live structural fires in 36 homes. A number of the homes were not used for live burns for a variety of safety reasons, nor did burns happen in structures that were too close to other structures outside the flood-control area. Still, those homes not used for live fire scenarios were used for activities such as forced entry, ventilation techniques, interior wall breach and other firefighting tasks.

There were more than 20 pre-written training scenarios with established learning outcomes. Some of the scenarios were pre-selected; however, each fire department crew was able to choose other scenarios that met its training needs. At the completion of each scenario, there was a debriefing and review of the learning. Training scenarios included:

  • Search and rescue – forced entry;
  • Vertical and horizontal ventilation, positive-pressure ventilation;
  • Room/contents and multiple room/ contents fires;
  • Above and below grade (basement) fires;
  • Fire extension into adjoining compartments;
  • Class A foam for structural fire fighting;
  • Exposure protection;
  • Thermal imaging cameras;
  • Water shuttle/relay.

The entire site was under an incident command system with Fire and Emergency Services providing incident command post.

Each scenario followed a similar pattern. There were two separate crews working on a designated street with two separate structures, using the same pumper. During the first crew scenario, the second crew provided backup support and rapid intervention team support. The second crew did not take part in the scenario unless an emergency arose. During the second crew scenario, the first crew provided backup support and rapid intervention team support. The first crew did not take part in the scenario unless an emergency arose. This format continued for the entire training session. Each scenario had a designated safety officer who had ultimate control over the scenario.

Many of the firefighters taking place in the "Flood to Fires" exercise commented that this training was unlike anything they had ever experienced.

Kent Reid of the Springdale Volunteer Fire Department in northeastern Newfoundland, stated, "The fire behavior scenario was one of the best things that FES could have put into the session. What we've been seeing in videos and have been hearing about for years is happening right in front of us. Watching a fire develop from the initial stages to rollover is an amazing thing to see. It emphasized the speed and intensity at which it can happen."

As part of the training exercise, the Office of the Fire Commissioner had entered into an agreement with the Emergency Services College in Brandon, Man. The college provides three levels of training for fire investigators. The course included members from the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and investigators from the OFC. The availability of intact structures provided these investigators with a setting in which scenarios could be played out as close to reality as possible. In addition, the RCMP conducted several exercises including a mock hostage taking. Stephenville has not encountered many hostage situations but a number of RCMP divisions participated in the mock situation.

Chris Blundon, of Goulds Volunteer Fire Department in the St. John's region, perhaps summed up the training best. "Over the past 15 years of firefighting training and providing firefighting services that I have been involved with, I have not been associated with such an invaluable, realistic and challenging experience. I've participated in many training sessions and exercises over the past number of years and I think that the Fire Commissioners Office and Department of Municipal Affairs has finally hit the highest target obtainable for any firefighting training. The Fire Commissioners Office encouraged the use of what we are used to within our own districts as well as what can and possibly may happen over and above from what we see . . . a must for all firefighters to see and attend.""

Health Dangers

Meth labs aren't the only new challenge facing fire fighters; so is the threat of bird flu. To date, such a pandemic has yet to hit North America, but the experts seem certain that its arrival is only a matter of time.

When this does happen, Chief Garis is worried about the impact on his department. "We had a situation where one of our engine companies was exposed to the Norwalk flu virus, which quickly spread throughout the company. The loss of manpower due to illness set us back," he says. "We responded by disinfecting the affected station and taking other measures to prevent the spread of the virus, but it was alarming just how much this "stomach flu" could have hurt our ability to maintain our regular level of service and fire suppression."

Rapid Growth
Fort McMurray, Alta., and the surrounding area are undergoing a construction boom, thanks to all the oil being extracted from the Tar Sands. "We've heard that the Americans would like to see oil production ramped up to five million barrels by 2020," says Jeff Carlisle, regional fire chief of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. His department (Regional Emergency Services, or RES) includes the Fort McMurray Fire Department (FMFD), which also supports and trains six volunteer departments in the region. "This means tremendous growth in terms of buildings, facilities, and population," Chief Carlisle says. "Already, there are 15,000-20,000 transient workers coming in and out of our community on a rotating ‘six days in, six days off' schedule."

Not surprisingly, the FMFD is not big enough to protect the remote industrial and residential complexes being built by the oil companies, especially because its primary mission is to protect Fort McMurray (population 60,983). Meanwhile, the six volunteer departments have their hands full trying to keep up with the growth in and around their communities.

A case in point: The FMFD provides the ambulance service for the entire region, which explains why the turnaround time for ambulance calls "can be up to 6 to 8 hours, depending on where the patient is," says Chief Carlisle. "We just don't have the resources to keep up with the phenomenal growth."

Faced with all these challenges, fire departments are scrambling to fight back.
Central to their responses is training, says Chief Don Warden. He is chief of the Wasaga Beach (Ontario) Fire Department, and director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Canadian Division.

"Compared to past years, today's departments are putting in much more time training their firefighters," Chief Warden says. "Whether the threat is CBRN, HAZMAT, or just new equipment, today's training is making firefighters better prepared for the challenges out there."

When it comes to meth fires, research is underway to find better and safer methods for fighting them. For instance, Alberta's Fire Commissioner's Office has "led a process that saw the development of a first responders guide to clandestine labs and grow operations to assist fire departments in the development of response, mitigation and safety protocols for clandestine labs and grow ops," says Ernie Polsom, the FCO's Assistant Fire Commissioner-Operations.

This excellent guide can be found online at Among its recommendations are for meth lab fire fighters to wear SCBA, Level A chemical protective suits; have proper gas monitoring equipment at hand, and to station a complete decontamination team and related equipment nearby. Similar equipment can be used to deal with health threats such as bird flu and SARS.

As for the challenges caused by rapid community growth? In Fort McMurray, the FMFD and other local agencies have responded by creating extensive Mutual Aid agreements with first responders working for the oil companies. "The idea is for us not only to work together, but to individually acquire tools that everyone can use," says Chief Carlisle. "Collectively, this gives all of us access to a broader and more complete range of fire suppression equipment."

"We have also developed a regional HAZMAT response team manned and funded by government and four oil companies," he adds. "This approach is so much more cost-effective and operationally sound that each agency maintains their own small HAZMAT teams."

At the end of the day, new challenges in fire suppression can be dealt with through a combination of research, training, smarter tactics, and modern equipment. Still, the problems noted above make clear that fire suppression is an ever-evolving art; one that has to keep pace with social, economic, and criminal progress.

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