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The Napanee tragedy

Ian Shetler remembers Saturday, Aug. 21, as the beginning of the weekend from hell – two days that would lead members of the Greater Napanee Fire Department through events that would shake them to the core.

February 28, 2011
By Laura King


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Ian Shetler remembers Saturday, Aug. 21, as the beginning of the weekend from hell – two days that would lead members of the Greater Napanee Fire Department through events that would shake them to the core.
A day earlier, the department had responded to a medical call to save the life of the child of one of its volunteer firefighters. The incident would later add to the department’s grief and turmoil.

Shetler was the acting fire chief, having taken over from George Hanmore in November 2009. Hanmore had worked with Shetler until a week before he succumbed to cancer in May 2010.

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A police officer examines the wreckage of the bus that was carrying four of five injured Napanee firefighters back home after their van was struck the day before on Highway 401. The firefighters’ relatives travelled by bus to London, Ont., to retrieve them from hospital and were heading back to Napanee when the bus left Highway 401.
Photo by by Dave Chidley, The Canadian Press


At about 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 21, Shetler got a call from dispatch; it was the beginning of a series of tragic and life-changing events. Five of Napanee’s volunteer firefighters travelling home from a FireFit competition in Windsor, Ont., had been in a collision – their van had been struck by an out-of-control car, shoved across the median into oncoming traffic, then struck by a tractor trailer. Details were sketchy but there were injuries; two firefighters were in serious condition.

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“I was notified immediately and given details you never want to hear as a fire chief,” Shetler said.

Shetler immediately contacted CAO Ray Callery. After scrambling to determine the status
and location of the injured firefighters (who were taken to four different hospitals), Shetler and Callery arranged for a bus to transport families to London. Shetler went on the bus; his partner, Lori Shurtleff, went with him to offer support and comfort. Acting Deputy Chief David Peterson would look after things in Napanee, along with CAO Callery. The bus left Napanee at 9 p.m.

Day 2 of that horrific weekend – Sunday, Aug. 22 – would be worse. At about 5:20 that morning the bus carrying four of the five injured firefighters and six others back to Napanee veered off Highway 401 near Woodstock, Ont., killing the wife of one firefighter and injuring most others, some seriously.

The recovery and renewal process has taken months and has produced numerous lessons.



Greater Napanee is a composite department with 10 full-time staff and about 60 volunteers in three stations. It responds to between 400 and 450 calls a year. It is responsible for about 20 kilometres of Highway 401. Like in most small towns, everyone in Napanee – population 15,000 – knows everyone else.

Everyone knew Napanee Fire Chief George Hanmore and residents were shocked when he died just six months after the cancer diagnosis.

Shetler admits that the period after Hanmore’s death was difficult emotionally and professionally; the two were close – Hanmore was just 56 – and Shetler had to scramble to figure out Hanmore’s record-keeping and computer-filing systems and get up to speed about the town’s policies and expectations.

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Deputy Chief Ian Shetler says that among the numerous lessons learned from the two crashes are succession planning and dealing with the emotional pain first.
Photo by Laura King


 

Lesson No. 1: Have a succession plan and share information with as many people in the department as possible. Bring next-in-line personnel to council sessions and meetings with staff. Develop a consistent filing system that is understood by key personnel.

A volunteer recruitment drive in Napanee had been put on hold when Hanmore got sick. Firefighters Dave Goodfellow, Kevin Duncan, Dan Matthieu, Joe Reid and Al Hatton were among the department’s most reliable volunteers. Four of the five were seriously injured in the collisions.

“We had started a recruitment drive and George started to get sick,” Shetler said over lunch in Napanee in November. “When he died, everything ground to a halt. It took a while longer than we initially thought it would to get reorganized, then we had the crash, so everything stopped again.”

Dave Goodfellow, whose wife Darlene perished in the bus crash, sustained four fractured vertebrae and broke six ribs, his sternum and collarbone. Kevin Duncan broke six ribs and had three cracked vertebrae. Dan Matthieu broke his right ankle and fractured his L2 and L3. Joe Reid’s right eye was damaged. Only Al Hatton, who was ejected from the bus in the crash (he told the Kingston Whig-Standard that the bus rolled five times), was unscathed.

Acting Chief Shetler sustained lacerations to his neck and soft tissue damage to his lower spine and neck, along with nerve damage (for which he’s still having physiotherapy, much to his frustration). His partner broke her back, five ribs, her left scapula, cheekbone, jaw and nose. Other family members and councillor Bill Pierson (the department’s former deputy chief, who opted to travel to London with the families) were seriously injured.

Lesson No. 2: Plan ahead and have back-up recruits and other personnel. Napanee lost four of its volunteer firefighters for several weeks. Shetler was out 12 days while Shurtleff underwent multiple surgeries. Shetler now recognizes that he should have taken time off and let others – who were not injured or as emotionally overwhelmed – worry about the department. (On Shetler’s first day home from London, he and other department members attended the funeral for the child they had tried to save on the Friday before the accidents.) In the absence of available or trained personnel, Napanee CAO Ray Callery brought in Ottawa Sector Chief Terry Gervais to lead the department for six weeks while its injured members recovered.

The bus landed in a ditch so deep that passing cars couldn’t see it. Shetler doesn’t remember much;  he was disoriented from a concussion and didn’t realize the extent of his injuries. He knew he needed to take control but his phone was lost in the crash so he couldn’t contact people (he couldn’t remember his home phone number, let alone those of city personnel); he couldn’t immediately ascertain where the injured passengers had been taken; and he was frantic because he knew Shurtleff had been seriously injured.

Lesson No. 3: Keep an up-to-date contacts database (spend money if you have to) and back it up in an easily retrievable location. At the time of the incident, Napanee used cellphones rather than BlackBerrys, with no way to synch contact lists to computers. In addition, have multiple emergency contacts for each department member and keep them current. (Shetler notes that all the emergency contacts for five firefighters involved in the initial collision were on the bus and involved in the second collision. “Who do you contact?”, he asks rhetorically.)

Within hours of the crash, the media descended on Napanee, burrowing into the Facebook pages of firefighters’ children to glean information, and knocking on doors of families who didn’t yet know about the second crash. Reporters staked out hospitals; one intrepid scribe waited for Shetler to take a smoke break and then hurled questions at him.

Lesson No. 4: Designate one spokesperson for all department incidents. Ensure everyone knows who this person is and how to re-direct media requests. Provide a standard wording for all personnel to use to direct reporters to the proper authority. Napanee Mayor Gord Schermerhorn was the designated spokesperson after the bus crash, with information being filtered to him through CAO Callery and Shetler. Most importantly, send one consistent message.

With Napanee’s acting chief and four key volunteers out of commission, the town activated its emergency operations plan. “This was a peace-time emergency,” Shetler said. Once the emergency plan was activated, “everything unfolded a littler easier,” from having people to answer phones and proper handling of the media to having support for families.

Lesson No. 5: Have an up-to-date and accurate emergency plan and test it often.

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Families of Napanee, Ont., firefighters injured in a collision on Highway 401 near London were hurt in a second collision near Woodstock.
Graphic by Krista Misener


 

By Christmas, all the firefighters had returned to their day jobs and three of the five had returned to the department. New recruits were on stream – three at each of the three stations. Support for the families – particularly the Goodfellow family, whose three daughters lost their mother – was constant. Offers of money were too numerous to count. The generosity of the community and the fire service was overwhelming, yet challenging to manage.

Lesson No. 6: Appoint an arms-length person to deal with offers of help. Charge that person with determining needs and managing donations. Set up formal avenues for donations such as trust funds. 

Several of the injured still require care but Napanee’s resources are limited. “We were all going to the same physiotherapist,” Shetler said. “That wasn’t a good situation.”

In a presentation on the impact of the incidents on the department, Shetler, CAO Callery and Sector Chief Gervais said emotional issues must be the priority. They noted that mental-health programs in many communities are strained and a large-scale incident requires a rapid response. In addition, the fatalities of a child and the wife of a firefighter meant that the department’s responsibilities extended to the wives, children and girlfriends of the Napanee firefighters. Support is ongoing.

Lesson No. 7: Know your community’s resources and plan for emergencies. Develop lists of resources in nearby municipalities and bring in those resources when necessary.

In their own words, Shetler, Callery and Gervais noted the following in their presentation:

  • Accept all offers of help and ask for help; pride won’t get you through an incident like this but help will.
  • Surround yourself with people who care as much as you do.
  • Treat every day as a learning experience; when things like this happen to a small community, you will learn things you thought you already knew.
  • Train as much as you can for this type of event.
  • Listen and pay close attention to the people involved – stress shows up in many ways, often long after the event.
  • Have faith in your capabilities.
  • The little things we do at scenes matter; for example, picking up ID, phones and papers.

Shortly after Shetler was interviewed for Fire Fighting in Canada, he and Shurtleff took a much-needed vacation, during which he proposed; they’ve set a July 16 wedding date.

On Feb. 11, the Greater Napanee Fire Department named Terry Gervais as chief and Training Officer John Koenig as assistant chief. Shetler has resumed his duties as deputy chief  so he can take time for himself and his soon-to-be wife.

The bus driver has been charged with failure to drive in a marked lane and failure to maintain a daily log.

“The broken bones and bruises will eventually heal and the scars from this will, in time, fade but will never be forgotten,” Shetler says. “If you believe the unthinkable can never happen to you or your department, think again. Prepare now.”


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