Fire Fighting in Canada

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In the navy

In the modern Canadian navy, fire fighting is the fine art of saving a ship without sinking a ship. The difference between fire fighting at sea and fire fighting on land is maintaining the integrity of the vessel and its ability to function as a warship.

September 14, 2009 
By Paul Dixon

Photos by Paul Dixon
Instructor at Damage Control Training Facility Galiano in B.C. holds the door open on a burn room as computer-controlled propane-fuelled fire erupts. Three levels of burn rooms at Galiano are built to closely resemble the spaces on Canadian warships.


Editor’s note: In May, reporter/writer Paul Dixon spent a day with the instructors at the Canadian Forces Damage Control Training Facility Galiano at CFB Esquimalt, followed by four days at sea with the firefighters of the patrol frigate HMCS Calgary. Calgary was one of a number of Canadian and American warships participating in Operation Trident Fury, a live fire training exercise conducted in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

In the modern Canadian navy, fire fighting is the fine art of saving a ship without sinking a ship. The difference between fire fighting at sea and fire fighting on land is maintaining the integrity of the vessel and its ability to function as a warship.

All naval recruits receive 10 days training in damage control as part of their basic training (boot camp) at one of two facilities, Damage Control Training Facility (DCTF) Galiano at CFB Esquimalt on the west coast or Damage Control Training Facility Kootenay on the east coast, in Halifax. Galiano (named after the only Canadian naval vessel lost during the First World War) is a state-of-the-art facility capable of delivering training at all levels in an environment that is as realistic as possible. In addition to basic training, the facility and its instructors offer ongoing advanced training. The entire company from each ship in the fleet must go through the two-day damage-control organization team training (DCOTT) at least once a year. Specialized and advanced training includes helicopter fire fighting and chemical, nuclear and biological response.


Galiano, which opened in 2003, provides the entire experience under one roof, from classrooms through three levels of flood rooms and burn simulator rooms built to the same dimensions as the deck and
compartments on Canadian warships. The entire training facility, including a downed helicopter simulator, is computer controlled, allowing trainers to create a range of incidents and monitor responses in real time. Scenarios can be expanded or modified depending on the actions of the trainees. If something goes wrong, the scenario can be stopped immediately.

Instructor Petty Officer Marty Kane says the process is geared to having the recruits gain confidence in their abilities to deal with emergencies on board a ship at sea by teaching them how to use the equipment that will be available to them and the procedures to follow.

“We want them to make their mistakes here and not at sea,” Kane says. “We teach them to know their equipment and how to use it properly. Their ability to follow procedure will determine the results.”
Galiano offers a maze of rooms over three levels that closely resembles the actual spaces on a warship, from the engine room through storerooms, workshops, ammunition magazines and living quarters.

Students are taught to recognize situations, make rapid assessments and set boundaries to keep incidents as small as possible. Setting boundaries is particularity emphasized.  Setting too large a boundary will allow a situation to grow while setting a boundary too small may jeopardize lives and allow the situation to escape the ability to control it. “Situations can be kept small if people react quickly and do what they are supposed to,” Kane says.

HMCS Calgary’s firefighters in front of the ship’s CH-124 Sea King helicopter: Cpl. Greg Crowe (left), Cpl. Chris MacDonald, LS Tony Deman, LS Chris Saunderson, Cpl. Chuck Wigger, Sgt. Ernie Payne.  
 A fire drill in ship’s laundry;  lines are charged and the firefighter is in full turnout gear and SCBA. He is wearing a CHEMOX re-breather, which is being phased out as the entire fleet is converting to Drager SCBA.


Overcoming the urge to drown a fire is a large part of the learning curve; the water has nowhere to go and too much water inside a ship is never a good thing. Flood control is the flip side of fire fighting aboard a ship. As well, mixing too much water with high temperatures in a confined space can create enough steam to kill everyone in that space. In Galiano’s burn rooms, if the temperature rises above 300 C, the fire automatically shuts down as a safety precaution. By comparison, temperatures in the downed helicopter simulator can easily reach 2,000 F (1,093 C) creating a very realistic scenario for the career firefighters and senior personnel who receive that level of training.

Having seen the training, we joined HMCS Calgary 60 nautical miles off the west coast of Vancouver Island as the ship was engaged in Operation Trident Fury with other Canadian and U.S. warships and aircraft. The ship’s 57-millimetre main gun was firing at targets as we arrived on board, underscoring that this is not a trip on the Love Boat. 

The frigates are the largest warships in the Canadian navy, though at 135 metres and 4,800 tonnes they pale in comparison to an aircraft carrier or the cruise ships that ply the west coast from Vancouver to Alaska. Even so, they contain myriad hatches and ladders with narrow passageways that can easily cause confusion for a visitor. Living quarters are sparse and privacy is minimal. There is one chow line; everyone eats the same food from the captain on down. When the helicopter detachment is embarked, there are 245 people living within that one hull.

Sergeant Ernest Payne is the senior firefighter on board HMCS Calgary. Fire fighting is an air-force trade within the Canadian Forces, hence the rank of sergeant rather than petty officer. Firefighters receive their training at CFB Borden in Ontario and are then posted to air-force bases across the country where they staff the base fire departments. While aircraft fire fighting is their priority, they are also trained to the same standard as municipal firefighters in structural fire fighting, extrication, medical first responder and hazmat, working four on, four off, 24/7. Before joining the Calgary, Sgt. Payne was posted at CFB Comox on Vancouver Island. Canadian frigates have a complement of four firefighters, augmented by two naval shipwrights (a.k.a. hull techs) who have undergone advanced naval fire fighting and helicopter fire fighting. Sea duty is reserved for senior firefighters.

The firefighters’ main purpose on board ships is helicopter fire fighting and instructing the ships’ company in fire fighting equipment and techniques. Other responsibilities include hazardous materials rescue/response, confined space work/entry/rescue, maintenance of fire fighting systems and high-angle rescue, all of which are much the same as in any fire department across the country. In addition, shipboard firefighters are responsible for fire safety during replenishment at sea when the ship takes on fuel from another ship, and must be prepared to deal with misfires in the Harpoon and Sea Sparrow  missile launchers, Mark 46 torpedoes and a variety of munitions for the other weapons systems on board the ship and the helicopters. What makes helicopter fire fighting particularly dangerous is that many of the small munitions carried on the aircraft, such as smoke markers, are triggered by contact with salt water, which is the principal fire fighting agent available on board ship.

Calgary has 46 fire hydrants around the ship, inside and out, and two pre-connected 1.5-inch lines with foam applicators. Redundant water mains run the length of the ship, pressured by pumps with two backup systems. Halon is still used in critical areas such as confined spaces in the engine room turbine enclosures and for high-tech systems. An engine room fire on HMCS Fredericton in May was quickly extinguished by the Halon system but it took firefighters more than an hour of confined-space work to declare the fire officially out.

“The entire ship is an industrial zone, you live in an industrial zone;” observes Sgt. Payne. “There is always hot work being done somewhere on board, grinding or welding.” Then there is the constant motion of the ship. “Like an ongoing earthquake,” says Sgt. Payne. Water and fire fighting foam on the deck can make footing treacherous.

Drills are carried out at least once a week when the ship is at sea. While the drills are no secret, the only two people who know when exercises will take place and what they will be are the coxswain (senior non-commissioned officer or NCO on board) and the senior firefighter. Even the captain is at the mercy of the fire alarm. The fire, denoted by a strobe light and smoke generator, is set and the alarm sounds. For our exercise the fire was in the ship’s laundry, with extension into the next space. Designated members of the crew including the executive officer (XO) respond immediately to the alarm location, size up the situation and take action as best they can. The rapid attack team (RAT), composed of the ship’s firefighters, suits up and responds to the scene, taking over from the initial responders. The second and third attack teams are drawn from ship’s crew and they move in to replace the RAT in timed sequences. It is no small feat manoeuvring through hatches and down ladders in full bunker gear and SCBA with a charged line.

The XO is responsible for all damage-control activities. Based on the location of the fire, type of fire and severity of the fire, he must make a decision as to the impact on the ship’s functional capabilities. In a ship that is operating in a conflict zone, it may not be possible to cease all other operations and concentrate on the fire. In hostile situations where the fire may be the result of an explosion, flooding may present a greater immediate threat than fire. Flood or fire has to be contained. Other than stepping off onto a life raft, there is no option.

Once the fire has been identified and the decision made to fight the fire, the area has to be isolated. Ventilation systems have to be shut down, door and hatches shut and boundaries established. While the main seat of the fire is attacked, surrounding decks and bulkheads can be cooled with water spray but attention must be paid to potential flooding. Smoke extraction is by mechanical means only, as it is not possible to cut holes in the ship. There are no windows (portholes) to break out for ventilation. 

 In our exercise, firefighters initially have difficulty locating the seat of the fire in the laundry, as the coxswain has the strobe beacon in his hip pocket. After the third attack team has combed the smoke-filled laundry, the source of the fire is located and extinguished. The stand down can be just as complicated as the exercise itself given the need to minimize the amount of water released inside the ship as the hose lines are drained through the showers.

Conditions at sea are challenging at the best of times. On Calgary’s return from her last deployment in the Gulf, Sgt. Payne recalls leaving the Gulf and temperatures approaching 50 C, sailing through the outer fringe of typhoon in the South China Sea that caused the ship to roll to 45 degrees on its way to a goodwill visit at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians, where the temperature was -26 C. That’s a long way from boot camp.

Paul Dixon is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.

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