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It’s all about training safely

Waterloo Region’s Emergency Services Training Complex wins praise from firefighters

December 13, 2007


6Smoke surrounds the firefighters as the temperature rises in the room around them. Suddenly, tiny flames lick across the ceiling, chasing rolls of smoke; the firefighters aim their charged lines and begin the attack.

Although the flames and heat are real, this flashover scene did not occur during an actual house fire. It was a staged live-fire exercise at the Waterloo Region Emergency Services Training and Research Complex (WRESTRC), and is one of the most valuable training experiences available to Waterloo Region’s firefighters. In its three years of operation, WRESTRC has earned the applause of area firefighters, police, and EMS as a world-class training centre offering realistic experiences in an extremely safe environment.

Since opening in June of 2003, WRESTRC has become a significant asset to the training programs of Waterloo Region’s emergency services. The centre, located at the edge of the City of Waterloo in Ontario, is a forty-acre site comprised of the emergency services training ground, the University of Waterloo’s fire research building, and an administrative building.

Facility manager Rick Hummel lists a multitude of ways in which the facility is used: “Fire training, classroom training for police and public health, tactical exercises, even snowplough driver training,” and more. The facilities include a combat challenge prop, water and ice rescue, trench and confined space rescue, haz-mat, and auto extrication. There is a driver training track, classrooms, the university’s fire research facility, and of course the flashover unit and fire training tower, including a high-rise section and burn rooms. Everything is available to the region’s emergency services free of charge, and have proven to be highly effective training tools in the safest possible environment.


Platoon Chief Ron Taves of the Kitchener Fire Department has used WRESTRC frequently since it opened, and feels that the training available there cannot be safely duplicated in the real world.

The driving track is one excellent example. “We’ve used parking lots in the past, and the regional police had a track, but it really wasn’t meant for trucks. The trucks were really hard on the track,” Taves said.

The WRESTRC driving track not only solves that concern but also provides a safe and controlled space where firefighters are tested on reaction times, a pylon course, driving manoeuvres, and braking and steering. “If they don’t meet the NFPA standards, the feedback sets what they have to do to meet it,” said Taves. “It’s improving the driving skills of our people so that we get the vehicle, the equipment, and our manpower to a scene to do the job.”

The specialty training offered by WRESTRC also improves upon training in actual real-life areas such as confined spaces and trenches. The electrical vault prop consists of a concrete underground vault, entered through an overhead manhole. Unlike a real-world sewer, this prop has a door for easy exit, a feature that makes the training experience much safer. Similarly, when firefighters undergo trench rescue training at the centre, they are not threatened by real-world hazards. “Out in real life, you have a problem with big transport trucks going by, shaking the ground, that can cause additional collapses,” Taves noted. “Out there (at WRESTRC) you’re far away from any of that going on.”

The ultimate training experience for a firefighter is, of course, live fire. And while area fire departments have on occasion used donated houses for smoke and fire training, WRESTRC’s facilities offer far more control than what is possible in a real house. The burn building at WRESTRC has built-in hatches for ventilation, sprinkler and standpipe connections, and a drainage system to manage water runoff.

“The burn building is a lot safer,” said Taves. “If we burn four skids in a room, we know how much heat we’re going to get, whereas a house can flash over.” The building can be configured with moveable walls, and of course is constructed of non-combustible materials — all features that provide a far safer and more effective training environment. “With the training centre, we wouldn’t even use a real house anymore. We wouldn’t take that chance.”

Sometimes, however, firefighters intentionally create flashover conditions as one of the most valuable training exercises. WRESTRC’s flashover unit is a steel container that can be filled with combustible materials, set alight, and entered by firefighters properly outfitted with SCBA and bunker gear. An instructor enters the unit as well, and waits with the trainees while leading them in observing the imminent signs of flashover. The rising temperature is carefully monitored while inside trainees learn to “pencil” streams correctly in order to lower the room’s temperature. “The instructor is explaining the whole process,” added Taves, “so when we’re inside a burning building, you see the warning signs and you get out – or you do something to control it, to cool that atmosphere, so it takes it down below the flashover point.”

WRESTRC’s controlled conditions and safety features allow firefighters to experience and learn about a potentially life-threatening phenomenon, and learn to respond to it.

The conditions in all props at WRESTRC are carefully controlled, and safety is always foremost in the minds of staff and users. As Hummel assures, “specific policies and guidelines have been developed to deal with such things as access, safety and facility use,” particularly as the site is available on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis. “You’ve always got to maintain vigilance and make sure that they’re properly supervised when you’re training … but you certainly have a lot greater security” at the centre.

WRESTRC is “trying to teach people not to be afraid of the fire, but to understand and respect it – and then, help to control it,” said Taves.

With the help of Rick Hummel and the staff and facilities of WRESTRC, the fire departments of the Region of Waterloo will no doubt continue to achieve these goals – in the most realistic and safest possible place.

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