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Features Prevention
New challenges: Responding today, planning for tomorrow


December 7, 2007
By James Careless

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Fire suppression has always been an art rather than a science. There are so many variables to contend with at the scene, that successfully dousing the flames has always been a blend of practical knowledge, hard work, courage, and plain good luck.

Fire suppression has always been an art rather than a science. There are so many variables to contend with at the scene, that successfully dousing the flames has always been a blend of practical knowledge, hard work, courage, and plain good luck.

However, challenges in the world we inhabit are changing the art of fire suppression; new challenges that previous generations of fire fighters never dreamt of. Here is a look at a few of these new threats, and how fire fighters are dealing with them.

Meth Labs:
A Dangerous Threat
Chief Len Garis heads up the Surrey Fire Service in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, B.C. It is a composite fire department made up of 328 career and 200 volunteer fire fighters. Working out of 17 fire halls – three career-staffed, three all-volunteer, and the others a mix of the two – the SFS serves nearly 415,000 in a territory of 342 square kilometres.

Increasingly, the SFS' firefighters are responding to meth lab fires. "In 2003 to 2005, there were 33 such incidents in B.C.," says Chief Garis. "The number just keeps going up every year." Nearly 40 per cent of these labs were discovered as a result of a fire or explosion. Seven of these labs were in Surrey.

From a fire suppression standpoint, meth labs are an operational and HAZMAT nightmare. Being illegal, such labs are typically hidden away in residential buildings, with few to no precautions taken to safely contain toxic chemicals and fumes generated in meth production. Add the fact that the heating process and volatile chemicals used can also lead to toxic fires, plus that the process often degrades propane tanks used to heat the mixture, and the result is an extremely dangerous situation for fire fighters of all stripes.

If this isn't enough, fire fighters typically don't know that they are responding to a meth lab fire until they have made their way into the building. By this point, the fire fighters have been exposed to the lab's HAZMAT dangers, because "normal fire protection gear doesn't afford the level of protection needed," says Chief Garis. "When we discover that we're dealing with a meth lab, all we can usually do is fall back and evacuate the area. If there are people inside, proper protective clothing has to be worn to try and rescue them. But doing this takes precious time."

Health Dangers
Meth labs aren't the only new challenge facing fire fighters; so is the threat of bird flu. To date, such a pandemic has yet to hit North America, but the experts seem certain that its arrival is only a matter of time.

When this does happen, Chief Garis is worried about the impact on his department. "We had a situation where one of our engine companies was exposed to the Norwalk flu virus, which quickly spread throughout the company. The loss of manpower due to illness set us back," he says. "We responded by disinfecting the affected station and taking other measures to prevent the spread of the virus, but it was alarming just how much this "stomach flu" could have hurt our ability to maintain our regular level of service and fire suppression."

Rapid Growth
Fort McMurray, Alta., and the surrounding area are undergoing a construction boom, thanks to all the oil being extracted from the Tar Sands. "We've heard that the Americans would like to see oil production ramped up to five million barrels by 2020," says Jeff Carlisle, regional fire chief of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. His department (Regional Emergency Services, or RES) includes the Fort McMurray Fire Department (FMFD), which also supports and trains six volunteer departments in the region. "This means tremendous growth in terms of buildings, facilities, and population," Chief Carlisle says. "Already, there are 15,000-20,000 transient workers coming in and out of our community on a rotating ‘six days in, six days off' schedule."

Not surprisingly, the FMFD is not big enough to protect the remote industrial and residential complexes being built by the oil companies, especially because its primary mission is to protect Fort McMurray (population 60,983). Meanwhile, the six volunteer departments have their hands full trying to keep up with the growth in and around their communities.

A case in point: The FMFD provides the ambulance service for the entire region, which explains why the turnaround time for ambulance calls "can be up to 6 to 8 hours, depending on where the patient is," says Chief Carlisle. "We just don't have the resources to keep up with the phenomenal growth."

Responses
Faced with all these challenges, fire departments are scrambling to fight back.
Central to their responses is training, says Chief Don Warden. He is chief of the Wasaga Beach (Ontario) Fire Department, and director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Canadian Division.

"Compared to past years, today's departments are putting in much more time training their firefighters," Chief Warden says. "Whether the threat is CBRN, HAZMAT, or just new equipment, today's training is making firefighters better prepared for the challenges out there."

When it comes to meth fires, research is underway to find better and safer methods for fighting them. For instance, Alberta's Fire Commissioner's Office has "led a process that saw the development of a first responders guide to clandestine labs and grow operations to assist fire departments in the development of response, mitigation and safety protocols for clandestine labs and grow ops," says Ernie Polsom, the FCO's Assistant Fire Commissioner-Operations.

This excellent guide can be found online at www.municipalaffairs.gov.ab.ca. Among its recommendations are for meth lab fire fighters to wear SCBA, Level A chemical protective suits; have proper gas monitoring equipment at hand, and to station a complete decontamination team and related equipment nearby. Similar equipment can be used to deal with health threats such as bird flu and SARS.

As for the challenges caused by rapid community growth? In Fort McMurray, the FMFD and other local agencies have responded by creating extensive Mutual Aid agreements with first responders working for the oil companies. "The idea is for us not only to work together, but to individually acquire tools that everyone can use," says Chief Carlisle. "Collectively, this gives all of us access to a broader and more complete range of fire suppression equipment."

"We have also developed a regional HAZMAT response team manned and funded by government and four oil companies," he adds. "This approach is so much more cost-effective and operationally sound that each agency maintains their own small HAZMAT teams."

At the end of the day, new challenges in fire suppression can be dealt with through a combination of research, training, smarter tactics, and modern equipment. Still, the problems noted above make clear that fire suppression is an ever-evolving art; one that has to keep pace with social, economic, and criminal progress.


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