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Incident Report: February 2014

Salvage was at one time a very important part of our training and a great deal of time and effort was spent learning how to salvage effectively.

February 10, 2014 
By Brad Patton

Salvage was at one time a very important part of our training and a great deal of time and effort was spent learning how to salvage effectively. Then, salvage became part of salvage and overhaul. It was at about this time that salvage began to take on a less-than-important role in what we do as incident commanders and firefighters.

Centre Wellington Fire & Rescue  
When crews from Centre Wellington Fire & Rescue in Ontario responded to a fire at a commercial truck repair facility, it was determined that operations would be defensive. However, firefighters were able to remove much of the company’s equipment, reducing the losses and enabling the company to resume its operations earlier than it could have otherwise. Photo courtesy Sherry Drapper


Today, salvage seems to be something we often do after the fire is extinguished; we walk though the building and see if there is anything that remains that had a dollar value or an emotional value that we can carry out or tarp over and say, “Look, we saved something.”

I know today there is an incredible amount of training to do – more so than when I started in the fire service 30-plus years ago – and only so much time in the day to do it. Fires are now hotter and move faster than ever before. Buildings are built to be disposable and can collapse very quickly under fire conditions. We now spend so much of our time going to such a variety of different emergencies it is impossible to train on everything, whether you are full time, part time or volunteer. We concentrate our training on the health-and-safety issues of our service. Our No. 1 priority is to save lives but we still have a duty to save buildings and property.  

Centre Wellington Fire & Rescue

  • 2 fire stations – Fergus and Elora
  • 4 full-time staff – administrative assistant, chief training officer/public education officer, district chief/fire prevention officer, fire chief – plus a county-wide training officer
  • At full strength, 60 volunteer/paid on-call officers and firefighters
  • 2 pumpers, 1 aerial, 1 large wildland pumper, 2 heavy rescues, two 2,500-gallon tankers, 2 support 4×4 pickups, 3 rapid inflatable boats, 1 Argo ATV and 3 staff vehicles

On Saturday, Nov. 16, Centre Wellington Fire & Rescue responded to a commercial structure fire. I was the first to arrive on scene. After a quick size-up I reported back to dispatch that we had a large, commercial trucking repair and dispatch facility: approximately 22,000 square feet, single-storey, built in an H configuration. The building was a wooden structure, metal-clad inside and outside except for the office area. There was heavy brown smoke showing from the roof. 

This fire was an automatic two-station response for us, giving me two pumps, two heavy rescues and one aerial. I also requested our additional pumper and support unit. Then I called mutual aid for three additional pumpers from surrounding fire departments and the regular support services.

Fire crews first entered one of the long sections of the building with the intent of making it to the connecting hallway in the centre area of the H-shaped building. The plan was to cut off the fire from the rest of the building. However, conditions in the building quickly started to deteriorate. We also had the added dangers of low visibility and deep repair pits in the floor of the structure, which were used by mechanics to work underneath the transport trucks. In addition, there were lots of acetylene and oxygen tanks, a paint spray shop, tires, and all the other materials and tools needed to run a large repair facility for trucks. It was clear from all the singes that the fire had completely consumed the entire attic space and the building. The building was no longer safe to be occupied by the firefighters. A defensive attack was ordered.

That’s when one of our captains came up to me and said, “Before the fire overruns the office space, should we start getting things out of the building like computers and servers?” I really wish this had been my idea but wasn’t; this is why we work as a team.

So, we established another sector and sent Salvage Team 1 into the building. In about 15 minutes there was a huge pile of computers, servers, file cabinets, binders and the like on the side lawn. I’m not sure if it was one of the owners or an employee who came up to me and stood there looking at the pile of “salvaged” items and said, “Sir, you might of lost this building but you sure saved our business. With an office trailer and a few good IT people, we can be back in service tomorrow.”

We also managed to pull out a couple of the large trucks – which cost about $250,000 or so apiece – from the repair garage, and tow all the employee vehicles that were parked along one side of the building away from the fire: more salvage, more great work done by the firefighters. 

We all know businesses should have recovery plans to ensure business continuity for when things go bad, but often they don’t. This company has about 150 tractor trailers working all over North America. There is payroll to do, trucks to locate, deliveries and the pickups to be made. Businesses today have a lot of essential information that is stored as data that must be protected or salvaged whenever possible. 

■ Lesson learned

  • Buildings are disposable, local businesses are not.
  • More thought is needed in saving data stored on computers and servers.
  • We need to carry more wire cutters on the trucks so firefighters can go into buildings and start cutting cables and bring out the hardware quicker.

In my opinion, salvage needs to be at the forefront of our action plans and not an afterthought.

Brad Patton started his career in the Township of Flamborough in Ontario in 1983 as a volunteer firefighter. He became a full-time fire prevention officer in 1991 and a deputy chief in 1997. After amalgamating with the Hamilton Fire Department in 2000, he held the position of assistant chief of training, before being reassigned as east command in 2001. In 2003, he became the fire chief for the Centre Wellington Volunteer Fire Rescue Department where he presently works. He has obtained fire protection and fire prevention diplomas from the Ontario Fire College. He is also working toward his municipal administration diploma, his certified municipal manager (CMM III) designation, and a public administration course at Ryerson University.

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