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In the land of wood and water

In the words of Marlon Brando, there are some offers you can’t refuse and the one that came across my desk in the fall of 2008 was a doozie. My partner, Barrie Fire and Emergency Services Chief Training Officer Tony Weir, and I were asked to come to the Caribbean as guests of the Jamaica Fire Brigade (www.jamaicafirebrigade.org).

September 14, 2009
By Greg Law

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Photo by Greg Law
Crowd control proved extremely difficult during live burns in Trelawny Parish in Jamaica during live training burns.


 

In the words of Marlon Brando, there are some offers you can’t refuse and the one that came across my desk in the fall of 2008 was a doozie. My partner, Barrie Fire and Emergency Services Chief Training Officer Tony Weir, and I were asked to come to the Caribbean as guests of the Jamaica Fire Brigade (www.jamaicafirebrigade.org). The purpose of our visit was to provide fire-cause determination training for Jamaican fire officers and to assist in the development of training for what will eventually become a national Jamaican fire-investigation team.

Like many other fire services, Jamaica has experienced an over-reliance on the word “unknown” in fire reports to describe cause and origin. This has raised the ire of Jamaican citizens, who regularly question the professionalism of the fire service in popular people-in-the-street-type articles in the local media when they can’t get a reason for fires in their neighbourhoods.

The opportunity to be part of this incredibly worthwhile experience came out of the Toronto Fire Fighters International Exchange Program, for which I have been the co-ordinator for the last 10 years. I was approached by Jamaican Assistant Commissioner Lannie Sinclair, who wanted to participate in the exchange program and work in Toronto for a year to gain knowledge and insight into the  Toronto Fire Service’s best practices. Unfortunately, because the exchange program was established to accommodate only front-line firefighters, there was no way to facilitate the request. Nevertheless, during a conversation about the differences between our two departments, there was an expression of the very desperate need for equipment and training. Not ones to turn down a challenge, Lannie and I spent the next nine months narrowing the details.

If you were to ask the average Canadian about Jamaica (which means land of wood and water), you would likely get responses centred on sun, surf and sand. The unfortunate reality is that a short step outside the walls of the numerous five-star hotel compounds reveals a very different set of conditions, including areas of abject poverty and shanty towns. It is under these conditions that the proud men and women of the Jamaica Fire Brigade toil – conditions that many Canadian fire departments would find remarkably challenging. Worn equipment, hand-me-down gear and patched hoses are normal response items in Jamaica. Although there has been a massive attempt to upgrade equipment and staff training, Jamaican firefighters still fight an uphill battle, particularly in this environment of world market meltdowns. 

Our training centred on a combination of theory and practical investigation techniques in basic fire-cause determination. We started in Kingston, training 23 officers from across the area at the temporary headquarters in the Harbour Commission building. Although a little challenging from a North American perspective (no air conditioning, no presentation equipment), we delivered a two-day course complete with an investigation of a burn cell and a visit to a recent fire that had occurred around the corner. Tony and I were a little surprised when we arrived at the building that the Jamaica Fire Brigade had organized to house our live burns. We hadn’t seen the building until we pulled up and we had a preconceived notion that the live burns would be at a training ground and not in the middle of downtown next to regular housing! Although a little different, and certainly not expected, the experience turned out to be less surprising than the location of our burn in Trelawny a few days later.

The Kingston burns took place in what appeared to be an abandoned tavern: two storeys, with lots of toilets. We created two scenarios, which would later become the pattern for Trelawny – two small bedroom apartments with mattresses and a sitting area. One fire was accidental; the other was arson with an accelerant poured into the garbage can. We videotaped the burns and after the investigation we watched the burns on the laptop before returning to the cells for debriefings. This turned out to be a particularly good teaching method as students were able to connect the remaining burn patterns to the growing fire they had seen on the video just moments before.

At the end of our practical training session, I remarked that the pumper had driven away with emergency lights still flashing. Our driver advised that any time an emergency vehicle is on the road in
Jamaica the lights stay on. When I asked how other drivers would know that the truck was not responding to an emergency call, in a deadpan voice, with a look that revealed wonder as to how I graduated high school, he replied “they don’t have their sirens on.” Fair enough.

Our next stop was to the Town of Falmouth in Trelawny, just east of Montego Bay, and another 23 students. The burn in Trelawny took place just down the street from the fire station. Like in Kingston, it was downtown. In fact, we could hear the people next door making supper and listening to music while we were setting up the props. Scene security is difficult in Jamaica, as evidenced by the appearance of a face in the window of the burn cell half way through this scenario (the observer was just having a look around) and the way our class size doubled inside the burn cell with the addition of about a dozen onlookers. Scene security issues became more evident when we ran a fire call with the crew from Falmouth the next day.

Politics of fire
An unfortunate side of this beautiful country is the inner-city violence. To understand it, one must first grasp the politics at the heart of it.

Jamaica is divided by two major political parties: the Jamaican Labour Party and the People’s National Party. Elections occur every five years and, depending on who wins, the outcome starts a cycle of prosperity for the supporters of the winning party and poverty for the others, as jobs and grants are doled out. Over time, this has led to divisiveness, the creation of gangs in support of the parties and neighbourhoods reminiscent of Northern Ireland with support slogans scrawled on walls in silent warning.

The physical manifestation of the political situation is increased violence, which then leads to the proliferation of garrison communities designed to protect inhabitants. These garrisons take the form of neighbourhoods, surrounded by corrugated tin fences topped with razor wire, or concrete walls topped with broken bottles and glass. The roads in and out are blocked, at night, with movable barrels and logs to stop the opposing gangs from committing drive-by shootings, and during the day by large men sitting at the entrances. Not only does this restrict opposing gangs, it makes fire fighting incredibly challenging.

When I mentioned to the students during the segment on possible signs of arson that sometimes arsonists will block access to fire vehicles with things such as logs or garbage so that buildings will pre-burn better, the class chuckled as this occurs nightly in the garrison communities. To better illustrate the dangers facing the Jamaican firefighter consider this: whenever a person in a particular neighbourhood is preferred exiled or is on the wrong side of the political debate, that person is simply burned out of his house – problem gone. If crews do arrive to extinguish the fire they are often threatened at the gate, or, worse, warning rounds are fired at them. A little more than a blocked driveway!

As the violence has escalated, there has been a tendency to use fire as a weapon. Opposing gangs have taken to fire bombing houses of their enemies (as opposed to using guns to solve their problems) in a game of one-upmanship, if you will. This has incredible repercussions, particularly if firefighters are restricted from getting into the scene.

Earlier, I mentioned the challenges of scene security. While teaching in Trelawny a crew was dispatched to a house fire around the corner. We rode with the district officer and upon our arrival, scant moments after dispatch, were greeted by what appeared to be half the town just a few metres from the burning house. To our astonishment a local man, wearing just sandals, was in the fire and attempting to direct the fire crews. This is apparently a daily occurrence for the fire service in Jamaica. Where Canadian police would have made sure onlookers were well away from the scene, Jamaican police are understaffed and are simply not aware of the potential for dangers that this presents, despite what firefighters tell them. 

One item of interest was a local solution to staffing limitations – a small, gas-powered pump on a wheeled cart that acted as a relay pumper. It was set up at the hydrant and boosted the limited pressure available to the first-arriving pumper. This alleviated the need to have a dedicated truck sitting by the hydrant during pump operations since, except in major metropolitan areas, two trucks are usually deployed for a house fire.

This fire proved to be very interesting in the end and a learning experience. We visited the fire after our investigation of the burn cells to add a little local knowledge to our training and see if we could give the Jamaican firefighters a reason – besides “unknown” – to put in their fire report. The building was abandoned, approximately 1,000 square feet, made entirely of wood (save the corrugated tin roof) and inhabited by a homeless relative of the owner. It had already survived two fires that had pasted one burn pattern over a previous burn pattern, thereby making analysis more difficult. We were lucky to have been able to attend the fire, which allowed us to watch the growth and development and narrow the likely origin to one corner of the building. This allowed us to identify and ignore contradictory fire patterns.

Inside we found a door that contained a burn pattern pointing to a corner in the room, which then led us to find a few large, cracked rocks, a piece of ubiquitous corrugated tin and the flat remnants of a melted pot. To us, this meant little, but to the Jamaicans it was a piece to the puzzle that allowed them to identify a common method used to build fires. First, the tin is placed on some big rocks to insulate the floor from the heat. Then, the fire is built on top and the pot of boiling water is put on top of that. Not a bad idea on the beach, but decidedly less so in a wooden building.

Since returning to Canada, we have learned that our students have lobbied the brigade to have us back for more instruction – probably the best compliment that a teacher could receive – and we plan to return this fall. 

We have also received news that our crew from Trelawny has used its recently acquired skills to secure an arson charge in recent months.

More than 19 years ago, when I sat in my interview to get on the job, I uttered those oft repeated corny words, “I want to be a firefighter to help people”. As I get older, and possibly wiser, those words still ring true. I now realize the importance  of passing on the knowledge and skills that I have been fortunate to gain. I think the Jamaicans taught us as much as we taught them. 


Greg Law is a n acting captain with 19 years experience with Toronto Fire Service. He is  the program co-ordinator for the Toronto Fire Fighter International Exchange Program and has worked abroad in Australia as a firefighter. 


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