Fire Fighting in Canada

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Trainer’s Corner: December 2009

In a matter of days it will be 2010. For us in British Columbia, this means the celebration of the Winter Olympics. Whistler’s population is expected to increase to 55,000 from 10,000. The increase in population, the transportation needs and the threat of terrorism will certainly challenge emergency first responders.

November 16, 2009
By Ed Brouwer


In a matter of days it will be 2010. For us in British Columbia, this means the celebration of the Winter Olympics. Whistler’s population is expected to increase to 55,000 from 10,000. The increase in population, the transportation needs and the threat of terrorism will certainly challenge emergency first responders.

This column is in two parts: here we’ll deal with first responders and terrorism; the second part (in February) will deal with multi-patient incidents.

As Vancouver prepares to host the 2010 Winter Games, thousands of emergency preparedness personnel are preparing for the possibility of everything from terrorist attacks to snowstorms that wreak havoc with traffic.


Hopefully you won’t have to deal with terrorism during your career but it is a very real concern in Canada. Certainly no one on the west coast is taking it lightly. Insp. Barry Nickerson of the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit (ISU), the policing branch of the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC), told CBC News that exact closures of air corridors are still being worked out with input from an aviation advisory committee. “It would be absolutely fair to say there will be some restrictions,” Nickerson said. “Any Olympic venue is a high area of concern.”


Blogger Megan Stewart with the Vancouver Observer ( states, “As a crush of spectators, international dignitaries, top athletes and the world’s media descend upon Vancouver for the Olympics this winter, a chlorine facility at the base of the Second Narrows Crossing will temporarily stop production. The timing for the closure could not be better. But it will be brief.” 

Cpl. Bert Paquet, a spokesperson for the ISU, said chemical warfare is one of the elements for which the ISU prepares and plans. “It would be irresponsible for us not to consider all the possibilities and risks involved and obviously chemical is a big part of our security preparation,” he said.

I was unable to determine whether the Canexus Chemicals plant in North Vancouver, which produces sodium chlorate and chlor-alkali products for the pulp and paper and water treatment industries, will shut down during the Games. I did, however, discover that the release of such chemicals from a 90-tonne railcar could potentially injure or kill 100,000 people. 

There are basically five categories of terrorist incidents: biological; nuclear; incendiary; chemical; and explosive. The acronym B-NICE is a simple way to remember them.

It is important to remember the four routes of entry: inhalation, absorption, ingestion and injection.

Biological incidents: These agents are dispersed by the use of aerosols, orally (through contamination of food or water supplies), through direct skin exposure or through injection. Biological agents are generally spread through inhalation and ingestion. Skin absorption and injection also are potential routes of entry but are less likely.

Nuclear terrorism: This is usually used in a “threat” situation. According to FEMA, it is unlikely that any terrorist organization could acquire or build a nuclear device or acquire and use a fully functional nuclear weapon.

Incendiary incidents: An incendiary device is any mechanical, electrical or chemical device used intentionally to initiate combustion. The purpose is to set fire to other materials. Incendiary materials burn with a hot flame for a designated period of time.

There are three basic components to an incendiary device: an igniter or fuse; a container or body; and an incendiary material or filler. The container can be glass, metal, plastic or paper, depending on its desired use.

Chemical incidents: There are five classes of chemical incidents; nerve agents, blister agents, blood agents, choking agents and irritating agents. A note on nerve agents: they resemble water or light oil in pure form and possess no odour. The most efficient distribution is as an aerosol. Nerve agents kill insect life, birds and other animals as well as humans. Many dead animals at the scene of an incident may be a warning sign.

Explosive incidents: It is estimated that 70 per cent of all terrorist attacks worldwide involve explosives. It is apparent that bombs are the current weapon of choice among terrorist groups.

Please do not be of the “it won’t happen here” mindset. In 1999, Ahmed Ressam was arrested by U.S. Customs officials while carrying timing devices and 130 pounds of explosives from Victoria, B.C., to Port Angeles, Washington. Ressam confessed to membership in a Montreal group plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.

In 1991, U.S. border officials arrested three American members of the militant Muslim group Jamaat ul-Fuqra. They were carrying an attack plan, a list of bomb components and surveillance notes about a theatre and a Hindu temple in the Toronto area. In 1985, a suitcase bomb was loaded on a plane in Vancouver, then transferred to Air India Flight 182 in Toronto. The plane crashed while en route to India, killing 329 passengers, including 279 Canadians. A second bomb, loaded on a Canadian Pacific flight from Vancouver to Bombay, killed two and injured four at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Inderjit Singh Reyat was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in the bombings; two other suspects were acquitted. In 1985 the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa was taken over by three members of the Armenian Revolutionary Army. And in 1982, members of Direct Action detonated a van packed with dynamite outside Litton Industries’ Toronto plant. Ten people were injured. 

Dealing successfully with a terrorism incident begins with a proper size-up. If you have been proactive by pre-planning, you will already have important information prior to the incident. Size up, especially at a possible terrorism incident, must be an ongoing evaluation. There may be pressure applied to you as the IC to do something. Be careful; it may be better to “just don’t do something, stand there”. It is critical to know what is going on, what steps to take and the order in which those steps must occur because of the presence of hazards other than those normally encountered. There is nothing routine in a terrorism incident.

First responders face threats today for which they may not be prepared. These threats go far beyond the usual ones found at structural fires, vehicle incidents or even hazmat incidents. The results of some of these threats may cause mass injury or fatalities. Images of the incident linger well after the incident is over. The psychological effect on first responders is an issue that cannot be overlooked. Some responders may not be able to deal with the trauma they experienced after witnessing an incident. I have spoken with more than a dozen old-time firefighters who still have nightmares. You may have to bring in a critical incident stress management team.

Before I sign off, let me wish you all a Merry Christmas and thank you for your commitment to safety and excellence in the Canadian fire service. 

Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., and the training officer for West Boundary Highway Rescue. The 19-year veteran of the fire service is also a fire warden with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, a wildland interface fire suppression instructor/evaluator and a fire-service chaplain. Contact Ed at

Key points for dealing with potential terrorism

We certainly have come a long way in the Canadian fire services. Looking at our responsibilities today it is easy to become overwhelmed. However, if you consider the following key points (you already use these) it becomes a bit easier to deal with the magnitude of our jobs:
■ Initial size-up and scene safety – take simple first steps, such as staging apparatus uphill and upwind, and establishing hot zones (perimeters). Even if this is all you do before additional resources arrive, do not underestimate the importance of these steps.
■ First responders must understand their role as it relates to their local emergency response plans. The IC should be able to properly assess the situation and without hesitation call for additional resources as needed. The IC should be prepared for what might happen next.
■ The use of PPE, including SCBA, is vital to your health. The initial actions taken by the first responders will be the deciding factor as to the final outcome of the incident. Pre-planning is a must, this is no time to fly by the seat of your pants.

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