Fire Fighting in Canada

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Hot-topic training in Northern Alberta

October 13, 2023 
By Jack Burton


After a record wildfire season, a new training course looks to equip municipal firefighters in Alberta and beyond with tactics to protect their communities and infrastructure. (Photo credit: Mark Brise/IAFF)

Oct. 13, 2023, Grande Prairie, Alta. – Firefighters from across North America gathered last week in the Northern Alberta city of Grande Prairie for a comprehensive, four-day training session on combatting wildfires as its impacts on at-risk communities continue to evolve.

Titled “Responding to the Interface,” the City of Grande Prairie Fire Department hosted approximately 100 firefighters for these sessions, with trainers and personnel in attendance from across Canada’s provinces and even Southern U.S. states such as Texas and Arizona.

This training educated attendees on best practices for protecting their communities against the effects of wildfires, with a focus on structural defence and managing these fires across urban environments.

The course was designed to supplement a 10-hour online training module on managing wildfire effects in municipal and urban environments, as opposed to wildlands defence.

Building on this foundation, the event featured morning classroom sessions reviewing key components and strategies before putting these methods to the test in the field with hands-on, scenario-based training.

“We go over new tactics – prepping the defence of a house, bump and run, anchor and hold, to name a few – and then the students go through a variety of stations based on each tactic,” said Mark Brise, master instructor for the course with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). “At the end, we put it all together in an operational readiness exercise, where we simulate a fire going through a neighbourhood and using these tactics to protect it.”

 

The sessions featured both classroom and in-field components, preparing students in techniques for curbing the effects of wildfires on municipal communities including structural defence and bump and run. (Photo credit: Mark Brise/IAFF)

With the spread of wildfires encroaching toward municipalities and the communities and infrastructure within them, this training seeks to prepare all firefighters, regardless of background, with the strategies needed to make a difference.

“One of the first things we tell the class in the morning is that we are not making them into wildland firefighters – we are just giving them some strategies, tactics and skills to function as structural firefighters in this environment,” said Brise. “After we leave there, they’re going to feel more comfortable dealing with an incident like this.”

The aim of this training went beyond preparing firefighters to protect their own communities. More notably, said Brise, is how this training gives firefighters a universal language for dealing with this issue, ensuring all are on the same page when protecting other areas.

“If these crews get sent somewhere to help another municipality, they’re going to know exactly what they need to do to help suppress that fire and save those homes,” he said. “It’s going to be the same language, strategies and tactics, and that’s what we’re going after: we’re going to keep firefighters safe in this environment, and hopefully save more homes.”

While sessions were hosted by the City of Grande Prairie’s Fire Department, this educational opportunity was collaboratively funded through a grant between the Government of Canada and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).

“Up here in Canada, due to the nature of some of the incidents we’ve had in recent history, we worked with the federal government on a grant to provide funding for us to bring this course to any and all of our players across Canada,” said Mike Carter, 6th District vice president of the IAFF.

The course was developed between Brise and the IAFF. Beginning as a pilot project, early success saw these sessions move to hub cities across the country. As a gateway to Western Canada’s north, the City of Grande Prairie Fire Department was more than happy to be one of these hubs.

“Phil Tufford and his team in Grande Prairie were very keen, and they worked with Mark to set up the training market around the area and get people signed up,” said Carter.

Tufford is the chief training officer for the City of Grande Prairie Fire Department. Following record wildfires in Grande Prairie and Northern Alberta earlier this summer, he saw firsthand the need among his own personnel and those in surrounding departments to be prepared when protecting both themselves and their communities from these incidents.

“We have a large, and almost a new need to acquire this training,” said Tufford. “Unfortunately, just recently in May, we had some of the worst wildfires we’ve seen, where we unfortunately did lose some houses.”

Between these recent incidents and Grande Prairie’s location as a hub to Northwestern Canada, Tufford said the interest and turnout from firefighters across the region looking to be educated and equipped to handle these issues was something to be proud of.

“We may be a smaller city, but we are the large hub for the Northern Alberta, including B.C.,” he said. “We were able to offer this course to our partners and departments in the region, and we had an outstanding response; I actually had a waiting list of people wanting this training. We could easily have hosted this for a couple of more days.”

 

The City of Grande Prairie Fire Department’s chief training officer, Phil Tufford, was eager to host the sessions for his community, and impressed with the response this educational opportunity received. (Photo credit: Mark Brise/IAFF)

For Jason Nesbitt, the deputy fire chief for the County of Grande Prairie, the opportunity to attend these sessions could not have come at a better time.

“This year in Northern Alberta, we’ve been absolutely hammered through our wildfire season,” Nesbitt said. “It started off here in early May, where basically all of Northern Alberta was on fire, including my own municipality. Everyone’s screaming for resources, and nothing’s available – it’s a huge challenge.”

Nesbitt views these gaps in resource availability as an opportunity to emphasize the role that education and knowledge can play as a tool in curbing wildfires. In staying informed on the best practices for dealing with this changing threat, Nesbitt sees a solution that’s always available and, most importantly, always valuable.

“If we’re not training and evolving to the conditions we’re facing, we’re going to be left behind,” said Nesbitt. “When you’re dealing with these things, it’s coming back to the basics, which this course covered, that will help ground you back into that sense of, ‘Okay, here are the steps I need to take in a systematic fashion to manage these incidents.’”

The training’s goal of getting firefighters across affected communities on the same page and clarifying the necessary steps for dealing with wildfires is key in confronting this problem and the directions it may take in coming years, Nesbitt said.

“This is one piece of the puzzle we’ve been missing in training, both within our province and within Canada,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff we’re doing and have been doing, and this just brings it all together and validates [it all]. It also gave us some different tips and techniques to try things a little bit differently.”

 


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