First responders play a vital role in the communities they serve but the way they interact with each other needs work.
January 12, 2011 By Stefanie Wallace
First responders play a vital role in the communities they serve but the way they interact with each other needs work. Often police, fire and EMS personnel don’t understand one another’s roles at emergency scenes and, in many cases, their radios are not compatible so they can’t communicate. While a committee of Canadian police, fire and EMS representatives is tackling the communication and interoperability issue, two Canadian colleges are working to improve the levels of understanding and respect among the three professions.
Lambton College in Sarnia, Ont., and Lakeland College in Vermilion, Alta., are teaching their students key elements of first response – such as incident command – that are common to all three professions.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the time, we have to work together,” says Carol Lynn Chambers, the chief and associate dean of Lambton College’s School of Fire Science and Public Safety and the Industrial Fire School. Chambers uses a car accident scenario as an example.
“Police will be controlling traffic so nobody else gets hit,” Chambers explains. “Fire is sometimes the first response and they need to be able to open the vehicle to get access to the patient and start administering first emergency medical response, and then the paramedics need to be able to smoothly take over that patient and get them in an ambulance to the hospital.”
Although the individual roles and skills of the first responders are essential, Chambers says being able to efficiently use those skills to work together is equally as important. A lack of interaction among the three streams can put a victim’s life at risk.
“A lot of individuals know other individuals in other services. But you may not be working with people you know, and you can’t count on that,” Chambers says. “If everybody comes knowing and respecting what everybody else’s job is, they can deal with this incident as quickly and effectively as they can. There’s a huge opportunity to be more effective together.”
Chambers says part of the interoperability problem can be blamed on the schools. “Historically, colleges and training institutions train these students separately. They learn their specific skills, but what’s equally important in our minds is that they’re able to use those skills in a co-operative, smooth and efficient way,” she says.
Both Lambton and Lakeland colleges are trying to change the way students learn by teaching them the value of teamwork before it’s too late. Chambers says there’s a role for everybody at emergency scenes, and Lambton’s goal is to ensure students know that from the get-go.
“We’re introducing some curriculum that is common to all the disciplines, like incident management systems, emergency preparedness and community prevention,” Chambers says.
Typically, only fire students learn incident command. However, the province of Ontario, through the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, has implemented a new incident management system that offers many new courses that will be implemented into all of Lambton’s first response programs.
“We’re keeping the discipline-specific courses separate, but introducing pieces of curriculum that are common to all disciplines, like emergency preparedness, community risk management and prevention strategies, be it health promotion or fire and crime prevention,” she says.
Even though the topics may be different, the strategies are the same, Chambers explains. “We’re trying to find those common elements and really draw those out so students are learning the
Learning skills in a classroom is a good start, but putting those skills to the test is what counts. A $10-million, provincially and federally funded facility called the Lambton College Centre of Excellence in Public Safety and Emergency Response, to be completed in March 2011, is being built to give students a place to test their knowledge.
“We’re creating the environment at this new facility where students can practise those skills together,” says Chambers.
Lambton College president Tony Hanlon and vice-president academic Judy Morris had a vision for a bigger and more modern program, and brought in Chambers, a Lambton grad who has a fire-service background, to develop it. The new facility will also host workshops in the spring for those who may be considering a career in emergency services.
In the meantime, changes have been made to the curriculum to get the ball rolling, including implementing the incident management system.
“We’ve integrated IMS-100 (the very basic course) into the curriculums of law enforcement and security, police foundations, paramedic and fire,” says Chambers. “For fall 2011, we will be ramping that up to include more inter-disciplinary learning and skills practice once our new facility is open.”
Besides high school graduates, Chambers sees ample opportunity for existing first responders to further their studies. “At the leadership development level – the sergeants, the platoon chiefs – there’s really not a lot other than discipline-specific courses to enable them to be community emergency service leaders,” she says. “We want people to come back to college and take public safety management diplomas and collaborative degrees,” Chambers adds, estimating programs like this will start to develop in 2012.
Chambers also encourages prospective mature students to consider a career in first responders, regardless of their age.
“I strongly believe we are missing out on a number of great people who would make wonderful emergency responders who have maybe not considered this as a career before,” she says.
“Yes, there are high standards and there are physical requirements, but we need students who are quick thinkers, problem solvers, good with teamwork and can communicate with one another,” she adds, noting that mature students are often full of these positive qualities because they have life experience.
The college also hopes for more diversity within the programs, Chambers adds. “We are encouraging young women to consider fire service careers. We’re missing out on a wonderful group of people who would make very good emergency services responders. We’re not lowering our requirements, but you should aspire to meet them.”
In western Canada, Lakeland College’s efforts to abolish the interoperability problem go back to the mid-1990s, says Kirk McInroy, manager of technical services and acting associate dean of Lakeland’s emergency training centre.
“A lot of the departments were integrating fire and ambulance, and then the government of Alberta Health and Wellness took over the ambulance systems. Some of the departments that were integrated are being split up again,” says McInroy.
“We’ve always been pro-integration, and we started a diploma program in 1995-96 which incorporates the firefighting and medical stream into a one-year program, called the emergency services technician (EST) program. When students leave here, they will have their basic firefighting and EMT training.”
Students enrolled in the EST program, the only one of its kind in Canada, take core training classes in both emergency medical services and fire fighting before specializing in one of the disciplines. Firefighting students receive their NFPA level 1 and level 2 designations, and students in the health stream earn their EMTA designation, learning from the pros.
“We have a real variety of instructors,” McInroy says, including firefighters that come from full-time and volunteer departments, as well as some coming from airport fire fighting and the military and retired fire chiefs and inspectors. Students will complete on-site practicums at hospitals and on fire services.
“Combined service is great because they can do both at the same time.” McInroy says fire and ambulance services often use similar radio communication systems so they can pick up the same radio signals, helping to bridge the lack of communication, but this isn’t always the case.
“Health, fire and police are all regulated by different ministries, so it’s up to the ministry to put the three together so it will translate to the people working on the floor.”
Integrating paramedics and firefighters is of high importance in Alberta. “There are lots of fire departments that can’t get enough firefighter-paramedics. Departments run advanced life support services, meaning there has to be a paramedic on every ambulance. If you’re running this, it’s hard to get paramedics that are firefighter-trained as well,” he says.
He notes there is ample opportunity for firefighters looking to continue their education, as the EST program has seen students ranging in age from late teens to mid-40s. Lakeland College also offers individual day-long or weekend-long courses for those looking to extend their studies.
Regardless of what side of the country you’re in, Chambers and McInroy agree the main goal of these programs is to see all streams of first responders work better together.
“We want to involve the other emergency service disciplines to make this much bigger and much more effective,” Chambers says. “At the end of the day, the indicators of our success are graduates of our programs, who can infuse that culture in their organization towards more effective responses.”
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