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Like most volunteer firefighters, Tony Ferguson wears two hats. He’s a high school teacher in Renfrew, Ont., near Ottawa. And he’s the chief medical officer for the White Lake Volunteer Fire Department who knows the challenges of volunteer recruitment and retention.

July 6, 2010 
By James Careless

Photo by tony ferguson
Zech Sabourin is putting away the hydraulic cutters after completing extrication training.


Like most volunteer firefighters, Tony Ferguson wears two hats. He’s a high school teacher in Renfrew, Ont., near Ottawa. And he’s the chief medical officer for the White Lake Volunteer Fire Department who knows the challenges of volunteer recruitment and retention.

When the Ontario the Ontario Ministry of Education added an emergency preparedness course to the provincial curriculum last fall, Ferguson convinced his school to offer the program in hopes of helping students better understand the fire service and potentially turning them into future volunteer firefighters.

The emergency preparedness program is a single semester course aimed at Grade 11 and 12 students. It provides theoretical and practical training in first aid, rescue, fire fighting and incident command skills.


“The ministry developed this course to give students a sense of the foundation skills required for emergency service careers such as firefighter, paramedic and emergency nurse,” Ferguson says. “I looked at the curriculum, and realized that it was basically what we teach new firefighters. I thought, this is incredible. I can teach introductory firefighting training within a high school context.

“A lot of adults want to join their local volunteer fire department, but feel that they just don’t have the skills to run a hose line or handle a nozzle,” he adds. “This course addresses those fears when kids are young and open to new ideas.”
Because the program is new and there was no start-up funding, Ferguson needed help from local businesses and fire departments to provide his students with hands-on training. Using cars donated by people in the community or the local wreckers, the students practise extrication skills. Ferguson obtained the use of heavy hydraulic equipment with the help of Renfrew Fire Chief Guy Longtin, who is a big supporter of the program.

“It’s really great for the kids to get this kind of insight into fire fighting,” says Longtin. “We’re a composite fire department, so we’re always looking for volunteers. If we can get kids this age interested in fire fighting, they could end up being an extra source of volunteers for us, and the all-volunteer departments outside of Renfrew. As well, some may even end up becoming full-time professional firefighters, which would also be great.”

Ferguson donated a backboard stretcher, three Kendrick extrication devices, several hundred feet of three-inch hose line, several rescue lines, a dozen rescue reels, and many other smaller items, while Perth Fire Chief Steve Fournier provided 10 sets of out-of-service bunker gear and expects to provide additional gear in the near future.

“Mark Prendergast at M&L Supply has loaned us water pumps, hoses, gated Ys and nozzles, while Ocean Wave Fire Chief Les Reynolds gave us 14 SCBA units,” Ferguson says. “Ocean Wave recently replaced their SCBAs and took these out of service, so they are perfect for our use. We don’t need them to be functional, just realistic for practising doff-and-don exercises.”

Stephane Roger of Canadian Group Emergency Services donated all of the certifications for the first year of the program.

Ferguson’s emergency preparedness course is taught twice during each academic year. “Normally a new course has trouble attracting students, but we filled both 24-person classes for both semesters quickly, and we have a waiting list for next year,” he says. “The student mix is split roughly 50/50 between males and females.”

The course starts indoors, with the students being introduced to basic firefighting, paramedic and nursing techniques. “We do some blackboard work and listen to guest speakers from local fire, EMS and hospital, but a lot of time is spent in practical training on CPR, first aid, defibrillator and emergency oxygen therapy techniques,” says Ferguson.

Students then go outdoors to suit up in bunker gear and learn to run hoses and handle nozzles.

The students stood in as victims during a mock disaster exercise in Renfrew in 2009 involving several agencies (fire, ambulance, hospital, police and public works), and helped the Renfrew Fire Department in an evacuation exercise at a seniors’ home during a mock fire scenario.

The value of this course is hard to quantify, given that this is its first year. But judging by the students’ enthusiastic response  – “I constantly hear from their parents how much the kids talk about this class at home,” Ferguson says  – “the kids are really getting into the material. It probably doesn’t hurt that the workload includes cutting up wrecked cars with the Jaws of Life. It certainly beats sitting in a regular classroom setting.”

Still, high school students who have undergone emergency preparedness training at school will be more aware of fire safety and everything involved with it. And should they stumble across an accident on the highway, these students will know how to save lives.

“Although there are some written tests, I grade the students primarily as they execute actual tasks. It is a practical ‘test,’” Ferguson explains. “This can be putting on SCBA equipment and bunker gear, freeing a victim from a car, or taking charge as Incident Commander at an accident and securing the scene. This is where they earn their marks; this is how they pass the course – by doing the job.”

Ontario residents who are interested in having the emergency preparedness course made available at their local high schools should talk to their respective principals and school board trustees. Teachers do not have to be certified firefighters and first aid/CPR instructors, although that helps. “It is possible to come at this from a health-care perspective, and bring in outside experts to fill in the gaps,” Ferguson says. “The important thing is that we can now start teaching high school students about emergency services as part of their regular education. It’s a tremendous opportunity that benefits not only them, but also the communities they live in!”

Ferguson says that exposing high school students to firefighting and EMS skills is a new way to bolster the ranks of both professionals and volunteers.

“Some of my students will be inspired to enter emergency services work, which is great,” Ferguson says. “As for the others? They will know a lot more about emergency preparedness when they become adults. Some will undoubtedly volunteer for their local fire departments or other emergency services, while other graduates will just be more supportive of what we do. That support can make a difference during public fire awareness training, having proper smoke detectors at home, donating to their local fire departments and electing politicians who care about adequate emergency services funding.”

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