Fire Fighting in Canada

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Stopbad: November 2014

I recently had the honour of visiting the Canadian Fallen Firefighter Monument in Ottawa. I must say I was overwhelmed and filled with emotions. My passion has always been about trying to prevent (#stopbad) firefighters from getting hurt or killed in the line of duty.

In April 2006, a visiting 52-year-old firefighter suffered a fatal heart attack while attending a live-fire training exercise at our fire training centre. For us, in Comox, this changed everything.

Before this tragic event we treated our firefighters as most other fire departments did. We worked them hard and gave them a water break every once in a while. Now we have a very formal firefighter-rehab policy. Now, at our training centre, students are assessed before they start training and if they don’t meet some very strick medical protocols they are not allowed to participate in the training. We find that about one in 10 students does not meet the accepted medical standards. During training, students are constantly assessed and if they fall outside of acceptable limits their training ends at that time, for that day. Also, all of our Comox firefighters have their blood pressure checked before our weekely training sessions. Anyone with a pressure above our acceptable standard (160/100) does not participate in strenous physical activities.

On our fire ground, we have adopted a simlar approach; after approximately 30 minutes of strenous work, the firefighters are sent to a rehab area and rehabilited and assessed; if they fall outside of these acceptable limits they are not allowed to continue with their strenous duties (regardless of how bad the fire is). Rehab is now a function of every emergency and training incident we run.

We researched what others were doing and put together a rehab program that works for us. Our program includes the basics, such as hydration and foods, and also includes medical monitoring of pulse, blood pressure, temperature, oxygen and carbon-monoxide saturations. Added equipment includes misting fans, rehab chairs, core-cooler vests, automatic blood-pressure cuffs, CO/Ox meters, coolers, and towels. We also added more drinks and food on our fire trucks.

We have also put water bottles in the cabs of our fire apparatuses so our firefighters can hydrate on the way to incidents as well as during and after. This simple little step can greatly increase your firefighters’ safety. A complete rehab program should include medical monitoring during all incidents. This is a function we have taken on at the fire department operational level. Many fire departments use their local EMS service to provide this function, but we wanted to take our program to the next level. Because we are a small community, we can not always get EMS to attend our incidents; and if we do, they might leave with a patient from the incident, a firefighter needing advanced medical attention, or leave to go to another incident. EMS personnel often leave scenes while we are still doing mop-up or salvage, but rehab is just as important at this time and having our own program ensures that rehab is present and active. We include this very important function with our staging area and management; rehab is run by firefighters, for firefighters – that way we control it, but we still request that EMS stand by in case a firefighter requires more advance treatment.

This kind of rehab program, of course, takes additional resources which could be provided using mutual aid or other members who may no longer be fit enough to provide suppression duties.

We have also added a whole new focus to firefighter fitness. Not only do our firefighters and their families get free fitiness passes at our community fitness centre, but we have also added a firefighter-only fitness centre at our fire station that is accessible 24 hours a day. In addition, we have added fitness to our regular practice schedule; an entire company of firefighters can go to the fitness centre during a practice session.

We have seen some of our firefighters change their diets and increase their fitness because they want to ensure they can pass the rehab protocols and, more importantly, stay alive.

Fire fighting is an extremely challenging job. Firefighters (including chief officers) need to be in very good physical and mental condition to preform their duties.

We are happy to share any and all of the rehab protocols that we have put together.

P.S. This 57-year-old chief is heading to the gym right now!

Gord Schreiner joined the fire service in 1975 and is a full-time fire chief in Comox, B.C., where he also manages the Comox Fire Training Centre. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter at @comoxfire

November 4, 2014  By Gord Schreiner

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