Infrastructure issues: Departments, municipalities examining safety, funding

Departments, municipalities examining safety, funding
December 11, 2007
Written by CFF staff
When bridges and overpasses like those in Minneapolis, Minn., and Laval, Que., come crashing down, firefighters are usually the first rescuers on scene. Firefighters in many major centres are well trained to deal with these kinds of incidents and, indeed, have been praised for their actions. But with urban sprawl biting into rural Canada and growing fears of aging, unstable infrastructure, more departments are likely going to require this kind of expertise. The challenge isn’t so much getting the training as it is paying for it.

Neville Wheaton, fire chief in Corner Brook, Nfld., and president of the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association, says there’s no doubt that large departments with well-funded Urban Search and Rescue capabilities are better prepared to deal with infrastructure emergencies than rural or volunteer departments with smaller budgets.

“If one of these incidents were to occur in any jurisdiction, fire departments would be tasked with doing the best with what resources we have,” Wheaton says, offering a well-worn refrain among Canadian chiefs, who constantly juggle the needs of their departments against the available funding for training and equipment.

Until now, many fire departments doing risk-management analyses rarely considered major infrastructure disasters, Wheaton says. The 2006 collapse of a highway overpass in Laval and the failure of a 40-year-old suspension bridge over the Mississippi River on Aug. 1 were wake-up calls for departments and municipalities to take a hard look at the infrastructure that hundreds of thousands of commuters use every day and take for granted. Now, Wheaton’s department is working closer with city engineers to identify possible risk areas. 

“While this has not previously been a formal process, we are now beginning to consider such failures in our municipal emergency/disaster planning. By inclusion in disaster-management plans, we may be able to secure funding from the province to help mitigate. I think that, as fire departments, we have the responsibility to point out to the politicians any and all risks contained within our municipalities and to point out the resources needed to contain and control the effects of such disasters.”

Whether infrastructure disasters are the result of age, inadequate building codes or deficient construction is being investigated in Quebec, Minnesota and other regions. Given the findings of these investigations so far – huge numbers of structurally unsound bridges and overpasses in Canada and the U.S. – the studies and numbers point to more of these kinds of emergencies.

In the U.S., the National Bridge Inventory reports that 80,000 of the 600,000 bridges in its inventory are considered functionally obsolete and 72,500 are structurally deficient. In Laval, hundreds of bridges have been deemed unsafe for trucks. In Nova Scotia, nine steel truss bridges – the same construction type as the Minneapolis bridge – have collapsed in the last several years (some after trucks hit the bridge rails), leaving politicians open to criticism and taxpayers and first responders fuming over unsafe infrastructure.

The key for firefighters, says Fire Chief Wayne Williams of Penticton, B.C., is to have access to the right kinds of training to deal with these types of disasters.

“My main concern for emergency responders for that type of incident would be the risk of a further collapse,” Williams said.

“Like all emergency incidents that fire departments respond to, firefighters need to be trained for the worst-case scenario and to be prepared for it. This could include having an engineer on site to assist the incident commander. Also, a safety officer should be appointed as soon as possible at the scene and he/she should have the necessary training.”

Williams says funding from the various levels of government can help departments get necessary training but he acknowledges that it is his responsibility as chief to let city council know what training the department needs and how well it is able to complete the training with the money that’s available.

In British Columbia, fire departments can receive funding for rope-rescue equipment and training through the provincial Workers’ Compensation Board. Certain construction and other companies – those with tower cranes, window washers, concrete or roofers, for example – pay into the Technical High Angle Rope Rescue Program. In other words, industry pays up front to ensure that rescue expertise for high-risk trades – and therefore the infrastructure some of those trades create – is readily available.

In addition, there are federal guidelines and programs in place to ensure firefighters and other first responders can protect themselves and others in the case of an infrastructure collapse. Public Safety Canada (www.publicsafety.gc.ca) is the agency responsible for developing the country’s capacity to rescue victims from major structural collapse or similar disasters. According to its website, it builds and reinforces the national knowledge base of first responders through its educational arm, the Canadian Emergency Management College, and publishes a guide for responders and emergency managers. It has researched and created documentation on USAR, its needs, scope, and skills. The documentation and recommended training is not exclusive to firefighters but includes them in the myriad emergency services that respond to disasters.

Three-quarters of Canada’s firefighters are volunteers. Most operate in farming communities devoid of high-rise buildings and heavy urban infrastructure such as overpasses and suspension bridges but, increasingly, people are moving out of the city and into these rural and semi-rural areas. “It doesn’t take long before high-rise buildings start popping up, increasing the dangers for firefighters,” says Deputy Chief Terry Boyko of the Toronto Fire Services. “It’s as important to know how a building goes up as how it comes down,” he says. “We need industrial engineers to tell us what we need to know.” And that knowledge should, ideally, be acquired before disaster strikes.

Toronto and other major cities have multi-disciplinary Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) teams. Generally, HUSAR response personnel train together on many tasks that cross the boundaries of the various emergency services. As this additional training becomes the norm for those firefighters involved in HUSAR, the knowledge filters out and becomes part of the normal training for other firefighters.

While the fire service would be the lead responder in the event of, say, the collapse of Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway (which is notorious for losing chunks of concrete), structural engineers would be brought in to advise how and when fire services should proceed, thereby offering some protection to firefighters and other emergency responders. But this would take time and fails to address the needs of those first on the scene.

“It’s not enough to just be a firefighter these days,” says Boyko. “Everybody has a responsibility to be in a state of awareness and to know what they might need to respond to and train for those needs,” he says.

That specialized training can come from several sources that don’t necessary cost departments extra money. Urban departments may be able to offer the benefit of their experiences to rural firefighters. In earthquake-prone regions, pre-disaster education from geologists could benefit first responders. Military personnel are trained in high-angle rescues and confined-space rescues and can help firefighters when disaster occurs.

“In anything that we do, the safety of the firefighter is paramount,” says Capt. Bruce Walsh of the Canadian Forces Fire Academy/Canadian Forces Nuclear, Biological and Chemical School, at CFB Borden near Barrie, Ont. The military is a resource of last resort and its availability is dependent on geography, among other things.
Assuming the military was able to help, “The civilian agency would be in command,” says Walsh. “We would provide extra manpower and equipment operated by the military.”

While the above sources can offer partnerships with fire departments, firefighters in Surrey, B.C., have affordable in-house assistance for infrastructure-collapse incidents in their rescue dog, Cody. Cody is trained in search and rescue and one of his specialties is his ability to crawl and search for buried or trapped victims.

“Dogs can increase firefighters’ awareness as to whether an area is safe or not,” says Surrey’s deputy fire chief, Dan Barnscher. Cody, for instance, has an acute sense of what is safe and what’s not. If he’s directed to cross over an area that he deems unsafe, he simply refuses to step forward. “It’s only his handler who would pick up on his resistance,” says Barnscher, “so it’s important that he be there, and not a substitute handler.” By his evasiveness, Cody can alert his handler, as well as other firefighters, to weak infrastructure thereby preventing them from stepping on, and falling through, a weak spot. A worthwhile investment, perhaps, given the expectations that aging roads and bridges will crumble before there’s money or manpower to fix them.

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