Fire Fighting in Canada

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Gear Guide: Long calls and long hauls

The Evolution of the “Go Bag/Box” and Being Prepared for Extended Scenes

August 31, 2020
By Kirk Hughes

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Here’s an example of a “Go-Box” for firefighters. Remember to incorporate the right mix of personal and work supplies to have on hand.

Picture this: it’s almost noon, your stomach is starting to get a bit growly and you wish you had grabbed something on the way out of the house to a call, which came in at just past 3 a.m. Then, suddenly, the rehab unit arrives on-scene to deliver some lunch. It’s pizza. Problem is, you’re lactose intolerant and didn’t bring your medication. Now, you’re hungry and grumpy and the high noon sun is really starting to bother your eyes. If only you had your sunglasses. Sound familiar?

With larger response districts, longer drives to calls and an increase in call severity, it has become necessity to be prepared for “the long haul”. The need for firefighters to be somewhat self-sufficient for a few hours at a call isn’t a new concept, but it certainly has grown in acceptance over the last dozen on or so years. Being self-reliant often takes the form of a piece of kit, mostly personal purchase, called a “Go Bag” or “Go Box”.

“Go Box” is a term taken from the prepper world meaning a piece of kit that is portable, contains basic essentials and is small enough in stature to be tucked away in an apparatus without taking up too much space. Some firefighters have opted for the small cloth knapsacks they can easily stow under their feet.

Some firefighters in Canada’s harsh arctic region use of durable plastic “ammo boxes”—a nod, no doubt, to the fact most northern firefighters do double duty as Canadian Rangers (a subcomponent of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves). This has also grown in popularity down south. “Ammo boxes” are small in size, have a carrying handle and three separate compartments for storage.

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Regardless of which method a firefighter chooses (bag or box), having some basic items nearby—not stuffed into your bunker coat pockets—makes good sense and provides minor comfort on those long calls. Items contained in a “Go Box” are personalized, with some obvious non-critical firefighter equipment scattered in. The common item categories can be broken down into three components: personalized, seasonal and work related.

Personalized items are just that: personal for that firefighter. That said, there are many similarities in kit that firefighters will store in a “Go Box”; the most common being any prescription medication for allergies and lactose intolerance, to name a few. Over the counter medication can also be included.

If you’re a fire officer, perhaps including some known medications in your box, in case your firefighters forget, is good leadership. A good thing to carry in the box is some saline eye solution. Even if you don’t wear corrective lenses, there are few annoyances worse than dry eyes after a grassfire or that gritty feeling that a piece of ash is lodged inside your eyelid and its cooling and refreshing feeling helps.

Sunscreen, bug repellent and chapstick are luxuries when you don’t have them, and sunburns and chapped lips are the scourge of those long hot days standing on pavement at a motor vehicle collision. Purchase the small packages at a drug store, although not the most economical, compact size is preferable in this case. After a fire, the returning apparatus may routinely stop for a beverage at a coffee shop or grab some food from a fast food restaurant. You’ll probably need some cash so having a few bills and a container full of coins for those purposes is a handy thing to have in a kit box.

Often, squirrelled away with the cash is some business cards, kid’s stickers and, of course, handy single packaged sanitizer wipes to combat any germs mulling around; it’s also preferable to have clean hands if eating a hamburger or slice of pizza. If the looks to go the distance, and no rehab unit is coming, a good pick up could be a candy bar, usually paired up with a can of soda or energy drink (substitute coffee for those really early call-outs). Of course, with all the talk of early morning calls and food, no “Go Box” would be complete without a package of chewing gum to hide the morning pasty or post-rehab food breath.

Each firefighter will have their own items to add to their list, and as time goes on, some items will disappear for lack of use or be added when a firefighter has one of those “I wish I had this with me right now” moments. A fine example is Chief Officers and food. Long ago, I realized any type of orange sauce is automatically attracted to a white dress shirt; guaranteed to land, splatter and stain that very shirt. A personalized item now found in a “Go Box” for a Fire Chief is a stain remover pen. Those are the kinds of things that are added, not only out of necessity, but from experience.

Dividing the items into categories can be tricky because some items can fall into many groups. For instance, small package of baby wipes are lifesavers at a fire call. They can be used to wipe down grime that has landed on a piece of kit, wash hands, face and neck after fighting a fire to remove carcinogens or be used post-bathroom when there is no toilet paper. A multi-functional piece of kit but also a necessity for any “Go Box”. Same with sunglasses. A sturdy pair of safety sunglasses can be personal until it is a bright day and you need them while driving. Keeping a pair of safety glasses, sun and clear, inside a “Go Box” is good practice since digging for scratched and scuffed eye protection at a scene takes precious time. Having personal eye protection within reach saves time as there are in one place, saves frustration since they are well cared for and avoids going without, especially if the dispatch (medical, car accident, etc.) reminds you they may be needed.

No kit is complete without talcum powder. Not only for tired feet but also after a hot, sweaty fire, powder is a perfect substitute to help mend any heat rashes, blisters or skin spots until such time as a full shower can be had.

Arctic firefighters customize the contents based on the season, with content for summer and winter calls. The rationale is that some items are more useful at -30 degrees and in the dark than at 22 degrees in the sun. Even in southern departments, checking over a “Go Box” and setting it up for the season is smart.

In winter, “Go Boxes” should have items related to keeping warm and protecting skin from frostbite. Toques, extra thick socks, thin thermal glove liners and hot packs are a few items found in “Go Boxes” in the Deline Fire Department. Often fighting fires in temperatures hovering around -30 degrees Celsius, keeping warm is not about comfort; it could be a matter of survival. Northern firefighters won’t don this gear while responding, since a toque isn’t something worn for structural firefighting, but the items come out while performing other jobs on the fire ground.

Adopting this protocol in cold weather is smart policy. Having these items in a “Go Box” that can be switched up after sweating to prevent frostbite or put on while directing traffic at the side of a windy highway, can makes a difference. If not directly involved in firefighting, items such as wool balaclavas and thick leather mittens are easy carries, even if a tad bulky. Keeping with the idea of colder weather challenges, firefighters should consider adding some extra batteries to the “Go Box” for flashlights and some USB chargers for cellphones. A dead cellphone is problematic for any firefighter, but certainly one stuck at a scene for several hours and can’t text their anxious family to tell them they are okay. Chargers and batteries are good to have year-round, but definitely in colder, battery-draining weather.

Summer heralds the start of wildfire season. Dry, hot, humid days are a vacationer’s dream, but a prelude to a day spent battling grassfires for a firefighter. With those scorching temperatures brings some unique challenges: smoke, ash and dehydration. Summer “Go Boxes” should include cooling and hydrating items, like a bandana, instant cool packs and electrolyte infused drink mix. Most fire apparatus have drinking bottles on board, but few have sports drinks that are needed to replace lost salts, so having that mix to add to bottled water really aids in preventing dehydration. “Work” category items include goggles and particle filter masks are smart additions. Even leaving a spare N95 or a half-piece respirator in the “Go Box” and donning them where appropriate, cuts down on exposure and prevents that dry hacking post-fire smoke irritant cough. This is especially true when involved in the investigational side of wildfires.

Fire trucks are large, moving toolboxes—that’s the idea anyway. But there are times when a tool is needed and isn’t readily available on a type of apparatus or simply isn’t deemed a department tool but rather a personal tool. Examples include: fire alarm screwdrivers, window punches and writing utensils. Some firefighters will add folding hose wrenches to their kit box, moving them to their bunker pockets if toned out for an alarm or working fire. Having those items within easy reach is the whole purpose of “Go Boxes”.

Fire alarms are a common call for most fire departments in Canada, and certainly resetting a fire alarm pull station is problematic when no one can locate that long flat-headed screwdriver needed. Having that exact tool within reach, but not jammed in a radio pocket to poke you in the face, is heaven sent. The tool is cheap and doesn’t take up much room. A perfect addition to any “Go Box”. Barring that, a good disposable pair of ear plugs can also come in handy. Writing utensils, especially white board markers for accountability boards, are priceless. Having a few of them, with some pens, highlighters and pencils, allows a firefighter to do so much without having to tear in the inside of a cab about looking for a pen, that, let’s be honest, likely doesn’t work anyway. In the Behchoko Fire Service, these items are kept in the little side flap of the ammo can, since it doesn’t reasonable hold much else, and locating them in the dark of winter is easier than digging through the entire can. Another smart tip, is to include an inexpensive glow stick in with the writing utensils. Not only can it be used to provide some low-level light when monitoring a clipboard, it can also be clipped on to a radio mike holster to aid in locating it in poor weather conditions or on the front of a bunker coat when operating on a dark, rainy highway. Advice from Chief Rene Camsell (Behchoko Fire Service – NWT) is to include a pencil with the writing materials, since pens and markers can freeze, a pencil can be used to write notes in sub-zero freezing conditions.

As a firefighter progresses up the ranks, it becomes increasingly important to have information available at scenes, of particular note is having a tactical fire ground guide. This flip style tabbed book provides on-scene commanders with advice on dozens of different and unique situations that could be faced by first responders. Having this guide accessible when pulling up on a scene could be life-saving. An example of this is rail incidents. Not an everyday occurrence for most fire departments, but when they are encountered special care must be taken in dealing with the incident. As an experienced firefighter or officer, reaching for that guide relieves a lot of stress and ensures the right steps are taken to mitigate the disaster. It is strongly recommended to have these types of tactical guides safely stored somewhere handy and what better place than the safe confines of a “Go Box”. Storing work related tools in a personal “Go Box” allows a firefighter access to particular tools without resorting to stumbling around looking for little pieces of kit. Remember, a good rule is: if a “Go Box” contains more than 30 per cent work related tools, a firefighter should revisit what items are vital and what items should be found on an apparatus. There is a fine line between personal use tools and improperly equipped trucks.

Lastly, with the popularity of “Go Boxes” in the fire service, it becomes necessary to distinguish whose box belongs to which firefighter. This is modestly achieved by adding some flare. Clearly, placing a name on the box is the first step. Other firefighters have added stickers, department patches, badge numbers just to name a few, to the outside of the boxes to personalize them and bring a little amusement to an otherwise tough job.

As demands continue to increase for fire services across the country and tightening economic conditions make response districts larger, calls further away and changing conditions make calls more severe in nature, it’ll be up to the individual firefighter to be prepared for those additional time restraints by having basic items available to alleviate the discomforts posed by the scene. Employing the use of a “Go Box” to carry personal, seasonal and marginal work-related kit eases the discomfort on prolonged scenes and protracted fires and provides the firefighter with morale improving conveniences that increase their abilities at those very calls.


Kirk Hughes is a veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Kirk has served with the Burlington, Ont., Portage la Prairie, Man., Deline, N.W.T., Fort Providence, N.W.T., and Behchoko, N.W.T., fire departments before taking a position with the M.D. of Taber as director of community safety. He can be reached at khughes@mdtaber.ab.ca.


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