I first wrote about the issue of rapid intervention team, or RIT, 10 years ago in an issue of Canadian Firefighter magazine. But, it’s an important subject that’s worth revisiting.
I feel a surge of pride every time I don my fire service uniform in preparation for another day working at the job I love.
I’m sure many of you will agree that experience is the best teacher. Good or bad, we learn from our experiences. It might just be me, but I am seeing more and more white-haired firefighters in my first responder’s circle.  
There is much to consider when it comes to taking calls and dispatching in the fire service.
This column was first printed in September 2012, but is worth repeating. While communications may not be an exciting topic for hands-on training, it is necessary. It seems communications is always the one constant denominator in every aspect of our job and it is always being improved upon so that it will work without fail.Good communication is important and plays a vital role in how well firefighters in a department respond, react and conduct themselves in day-to-day operations. A breakdown in communications leads to a dysfunctional fire department or fire ground.Different types of communications are used in the fire service that we should all be familiar with and well-versed in. They are written communications, face-to-face communications, electronic communications and radio communications.In the station, we will be exposed to written, face-to-face and electronic communications.Written communications include memos, communiques, emails, bulletins and so on. These are usually posted somewhere for all to see or may be directed to one person.Electronic communications will be in the form of an email sent via mobile phone, text message, Facebook posting, or Twitter. These types of communications will be directed to a single person, for the most part, or to a group of people that have access to the media being used.On the fire ground, we are limited to certain types of communications that can be used, such as radio, electronic and face-to-face.Communication by a portable radio is the most common method for most firefighters. A portable radio allows a team of firefighters to remain in contact with the incident commander (IC) and each other. It is a lifeline for a firefighter working on the fire ground. Without it, a firefighter would be left to more primitive ways to communicate such as face-to-face. The portable radio gives distance to the working crew by allowing firefighters to be far away from the IC yet still be able to report back or receive messages. Knowing how to use the portable radio correctly is the key to effective fire ground communications.Of all the ways to communicate with a person or persons, face-to-face is the best. It allows the receiver and the sender to have instant acknowledgement from each other when passing on information, asking a question or giving an order. Facial expressions, as well as body language, are also used in this method as a way to convey or receive a message. There is an opportunity to clarify a message so that a full understanding is obtained. The downside to face-to-face communications is that it reduces the distance a crew can be from the IC or sector officer. Close proximity must be maintained to remain in contact with each other. Same goes for interior crews working with a limited number of portable radios and/or failure of portable radios. Defaulting back to traditional face-to-face or verbal communications will be the only way to communicate with each other. For some firefighters, this is a lost art.  Dependence upon a portable radio is all they know. Training on how to communicate on the fire ground when the portable radio fails or is lost during an interior operation is a good idea. This will reinforce the traditional skills that are needed when such a situation occurs, and it will happen as a portable radio is an electronic device powered by a battery.When firefighters are using portable radios on the fire ground, communications can become confusing and/or very hard to follow. This can be due to a number of reasons. One reason is the usage of 10 codes. Using 10 codes in the fire service was removed when the National Incident Management System (NIMS) came into existence. NIMS was created and implemented as a result of the tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001. The communications breakdown that day and in the days that followed led to a common plain text language being adopted and used. Plain text language is everyday language that we use and permits people to be able to communicate with each other.Within NIMS there are also provisions for common terminology to be used on the fire ground. Terms such as sectors, divisions, geographical designations of buildings, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, roger, over and acknowledge are terms that are used in an effort to reduce the amount of confusion over the airwaves when trying to communicate via a portable radio or by other means.Another reason for communication confusion on the fire ground is firefighters yelling into the radio when trying to speak. When a message is being transmitted by the sender and the individual is yelling into the radio, it will be received as a distorted message with the receiver wondering what was said. This can be due to improper positioning of the radio to the mouth when transmitting. Avoid holding the radio/microphone directly in front of your mouth when speaking. Avoid pushing or swallowing the radio/microphone when speaking. Instead hold the radio/microphone on a 45-degree angle about two inches away from your mouth and you will send a clearer message. If wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus, make sure the radio/microphone is positioned at the communication portals on the facepiece, which will allow you to speak clearly and not sound muffled. Holding your breath while relaying the message may also help. Removal of breathing sounds help to amplify the message transmission.Another method is to hold the radio/microphone directly to the lens of the facepiece when speaking. This requires putting the radio almost at eye level on the outside of the lens. With the radio/microphone in direct contact with the lens, the message comes across a lot clearer for the receiver. Avoid feedback between other radios on the fire ground when transmitting. This can happen when all crew members have a portable radio and one is trying to transmit. The feedback distorts the message. Turn away from other radios when transmitting a message.Using these simple but basic techniques when communicating on the fire ground will enhance the quality of the transmissions and remove the confusion factor for all.Mark van der Feyst has been a member of the fire service since 1999 and is a full-time firefighter in Ontario. Mark teaches in Canada, United States and India, and is a FDIC instructor. He is the lead author of the Residential Fire Rescue book. Email Mark at
My wife and I own and operate a horse ranch in Southern B.C..  We raise Foundation Quarter Horses as well as managing an equine retirement, rescue and rehoming program. I mention that part of our life as a bit of background to this column.
Registration is now open for the 2018 Firefighter Training Day being held Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018 at the GTAA Fire and Emergency Services Training Institute (FESTI) at 2025 Courtneypark Drive East in Toronto. The day-long program gives volunteer, part-time and full-time firefighters the opportunity to expand their training and enhance their skills. Active members of volunteer/career fire departments are welcome to participate (with their chief’s approval). Training is free. The event is sponsored by FESTI, Fort Garry Fire Trucks, FLIR, Canadian Firefighter and Fire Fighting in Canada. Click here for the website.Click here for the registration page.
Have you thought about live fire training in your department? Today’s fires occur with less frequency, but when they occur the fires are far more dangerous than they were 20 years ago.
Winter can be fun: sliding, skiing, skating, hockey, or just going for a walk in the crisp fresh snow are all great cold weather activities that can put a smile on our faces. These are the happy thoughts of winter most of us would like to envision.
Continuing our look back over the last 10 years of Back to Basics in Fire Fighting in Canada, I’d like to highlight this article, which focuses on the backup person position on the handline. This position used to be simply ignored outside of basic training. Instructors like Aaron Fields, Dave McGrail and many others from across America started to bring the focus back to this important role.
Of all the articles I have written, the one on Call Signs for Life I wrote five years ago continues to garner a lot of inquiries. Dozens of departments have switched to this simple system and most have said that changing their radio call signs has been one of the best decisions they have made.
I have been focusing a lot on fire ground operations lately after witnessing many firefighters completing tasks in a manner that is inconsistent with their training over the last few months. One area where I have noticed inconsistencies is the use of ground ladders. This area is neglected greatly in the fire service because we often consider ground ladders to be bulky, heavy and awkward to handle.
On March 12 and 13, firefighters from 10 Fraser Valley departments in British Columbia took part in an exercise that will shape the standard by which first responders deal with Class 3 flammable liquids delivered by rail in Canada.
March 2016 - Say the words Lac-Megantic and a flood of images, feelings and thoughts come quickly to mind. The July 2013 train derailment and explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Que., was a watershed event in Canada, particularly as it relates to the transportation of flammable liquids and the regulations, policies and actions that producers, shippers and consignors must now consider.
As I was doing the final preparations for my course at FDIC Atlantic in June, I realized there was some important information that I had not addressed in my column on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in February, in particular, the incident that occurred on Oct. 2, 1997
For almost two decades, the tragic story of four volunteer firefighters has haunted me. This column is in memory of René Desharnais, Martin Desrochers, Raynald Dion and Raymond Michaud.
If your department deals with hazardous material, a copy of the Emergency Response Guidebook, or ERG, is an invaluable resource.
The growing meth epidemic in Canada’s cities is usually the territory of police, health and social service agencies. In Surrey, B.C., however, members of the fire service have thrown their support – and dollars – into the fight against this scourge in their community.
Firefighters can now easily get specialized training to maximize their firefighting skills in buildings equipped with sprinkler systems through a self-paced online training program from FM Global, one of the world’s largest commercial and industrial property insurers.  Available at no cost to firefighters, the interactive Fighting Fire in Sprinklered Buildings program trains participants how to create pre-incident plans with owners of sprinklered buildings.  In the program, firefighters learn about the design, function and limits of sprinkler systems, why  sprinklered buildings burn and how to combat fires most effectively with sprinklers in operation. “In some situations, firefighters can unintentionally make a fire worse at the scene by closing sprinkler valves and turning off electrical power prematurely,” said Michael Spaziani, assistant vice president, senior staff engineering specialist, at FM Global. “Even the most experienced firefighter can benefit from this specialized training.” Firefighters receive a certificate upon completing the program and passing a skills assessment. The training can be accessed at FM Global is a U.S.-based mutual insurance company whose capital, scientific research capability and engineering expertise are solely dedicated to property risk management and the resilience of its client-owners.  For more information, visit FM Global.
Acting Capt. Amanda Smyth sits in the front passenger seat, listening to the dispatcher confirm an alarm activation. Quickly and authoritatively, Smyth responds, ticking off boxes in her head.
If a large incident happened in your response area, would you and your officers know what to do? Train on incident management systems and discuss the recommendations from the Elliot Lake mall collapse with Brad Bigrigg, Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs program manager – absolutely free! Obtain your IMS-100 certification through this four-hour program with a qualified instructor, plus spend an extra two hours on lessons learned from Elliot Lake. IMS 100 – Introduction to Incident Management Systems, is one of two courses still open for registration at our annual Firefighter Training Day at Toronto’s Fire and Emergency Services Training Institute – FESTI – on Sept. 26. Spots are also running out for our second open course – patient packaging and triage – so don’t wait to register! It’s free training, no strings attached!REGISTER NOW
When tens of thousands of country-music fans descend on Cavendish, P.E.I., every summer, the risk of potential disaster increases – crowds, weather, traffic and over-indulgence can all turn bad quickly.
Firefighters will often part company at the end of a shift by saying, “See you at the big one.” One of the oddities of our subculture is that such a phrase usually is received with a smile. Even as 9-11 begins to fade from our immediate consciousnesses we are willing, and even eager, to face that one career-defining incident that would bring out all hands.
The adage that two heads are better than one has been expanded on at Atlantic Canada’s only nuclear generating station.
In Western Canada, the collaboration among industry stakeholders, first responders and government agencies during last summer’s wildfire season was remarkable. Information and resource sharing, situation updates, timely and effective communication, and a lot of plain old hard work provided the necessary tools to get us through a crazy summer. During that time, there were record-sized fires in British Columbia’s Tumbler Ridge and Moberly Lake to Mt. McAllister, and the entire community of Hudson’s Hope, B.C., was evacuated. However, there were also some valuable lessons learned about the hazards first responders typically encounter when responding to emergencies near industrial activities.Pipeline crossings, specifically in rural areas, are one of the most important topics to address for emergency response personnel. Under federal and/or provincial regulations, oil and gas companies that own and operate pipelines are required to monitor, and in many cases prevent, heavy equipment from crossing pipeline right of ways. There are many reasons for this. First, the depth of pipelines varies due to factors including farm activities stripping away layers of soil, hot ground/surface fires, flooding and erosion. And secondly, companies spend a lot of time and resources identifying and mapping pipeline crossings. Nothing is more frustrating to the owner/operator of a high-volume pipeline than seeing that heavy equipment impacted a section of pipe – especially when a designated crossing was close by. Always check with the pipeline company prior to mobilizing heavy equipment.Knowing what the pipelines contain is also critical. Information about the specific products will help determine safe distances for setting up temporary camps, staging areas and incident-command posts. Always verify with the pipeline company what distance should be maintained from the hazard area, which is generally referred to as the emergency planning zone (EPZ). The radius of an EPZ depends on the product being transported, the operating pressure and the liquid/gas volume. Pipeline companies will gladly share product information and emergency protocols with emergency-response personnel. Understanding this information ensures everyone is aware of the potential hazards as well as the do’s and don’ts.The oil and gas industry has numerous sites at which large volumes of hydrocarbons are stored in tank farms. And even though industry works hard to reduce the storage of flammable materials during the fire season, the potential fire/explosive hazard is always present. Tank sizes vary, but it is important that fire departments confirm with the local company the contents of the tanks and the volumes. This information is usually found in the wildfire-mitigation plan for the area.Having up-to-date emergency contact information for industry stakeholders in a given operating area is vital. Company personnel change frequently, which presents communication challenges for everyone. Creating a real-time and accurate list for single points of contact within organizations avoids unnecessary time delays in pushing the critical information to those who need it most. Industry stakeholders also need updated contact information for local emergency services, response agencies and government authorities. A great information-sharing mechanism was created and co-ordinated by Emergency Management BC in Prince George last summer. Interagency and industry conference calls were set up to provide wildfire-situation updates, weather forecasts, fire impacts and much more. Participants were able to get fast, accurate information. By opening up the phone lines, industry stakeholders could then use the most current information to prepare for wildfire threats.Mapping proved to be another challenge with respect to the wildfires. However, industry has many geographic-information-system (GIS) resources available to ensure pipelines, roads, bridges, water sources, work camp locations and other important landmarks are clearly identified on the maps used by response personnel. In fact, most emergency-response plans have updated maps. The maps help responders quickly prioritize their actions and tasks; for example, the structural protection of a large work camp would likely take priority over a pipeline. On the other hand, protecting a bridge may take precedent, depending on the access and egress.Any time we can learn lessons from our past experiences demonstrates a willingness to continually improve response systems, processes, methods and tools.Mike Burzek is the senior HSE co-ordinator for Progress Energy Canada Ltd. He has 26 years of experience in emergency response and public safety. He lives in Fort St. John, B.C., and can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
In general terms, pipelines are (mostly) underground conduits used for transporting materials including water, waste products, oil and gas.
In the wake of some very serious industrial accidents around the world, many countries recognized the need for hazard-specific emergency preparedness and response.
Although tactical operations get most of the attention during emergencies, anyone who has been on the front line of emergency response appreciates the ones responsible for the less glamorous task of planning.
The concept of unified command within an incident-management system is often misunderstood during major emergencies or disasters
It is not often that emergency personnel are called to rural farm settings, nor do first responders have the necessary knowledge of agricultural operations
Not too many departments get the chance to work with air ambulance very often, so when they do it is often a new thing for them. This article was written right after an incident occurred which required air ambulance to attend.
In our look back at the last 10 years, there has been a lot of attention devoted to moving the handline. There has been a paradigm shift in the fire service due to firefighters like Aaron Fields, Andy Fredericks, Dave McGrail and others. This article was written back in 2008 when the paradigm started to take flight.
We are continuing with a look back over the last 10 years with articles that have been a highlight based on the topic or feedback. This article was published in August 2009 and was a highlight because of the topic: not much is discussed about overhaul.  
This year, Back to Basics has reached a milestone. We are entering our 10th year of publication. When I look back on the past 10 years, I am amazed at how much we have covered. I must admit that I never thought this column would last five years, let alone 10. For our 10-year anniversary, I am going to recap some of my favourite articles from over the years that garnered attention within the Canadian fire service.
I recently conducted a structural burn session class for a local fire department, where members had access to a school building for live-fire training. The training day allowed firefighters to refine their skills under realistic conditions.
Oct. 11, 2017 – One single ounce of oxygen. That’s all it would have taken for an explosion to have occurred at Pacific BioEnergy’s Prince George, B.C. facility in August 2017. It was Thursday, Aug. 24 when chairman and chief executive officer Don Steele found out that one of the wood pellet fuel company’s silos began smoldering overnight.Steele was hosting a group of seven guests who had flown from Nagoya, Japan for a tour of the facility. “I advised them," he explained. "I said we could go up and have a look. We might even go on the property and they wouldn’t see much. But, at that point in time we were evacuating,” Steele said.Although reported as a fire in mainstream media, the incident was a smoldering situation. Wood pellet consultancy company FutureMetrics’ John Swaan founded Pacific BioEnergy Corporation in 1994. His direction on-site is one of the main reasons why an explosion didn’t take place.What was the winning solution? Nitrogen injection. In an industry where the potential for explosions is all too common, this was the first time that a North American pellet operation successfully put out a smouldering issue. “We have a number of incidents that have happened in our industry, mostly in Europe, that have not gone successfully,” Swaan said.“There were some references that I shared with Don and his key people on-site,” Swaan recalled from the day. “And then his VP of operations gathered his key people around and took a look at what the options might be and looked at the references,” he explained. “I shared the report about how best to handle these [situations], that was done in a research centre in Sweden.” “So we did some calculations, and based on those calculations, a decision was made with Don and his people to say ‘OK, let’s bring in the nitrogen.’”“A simple reaction would be to try and open [the silo] up to put out the fire, which would have been catastrophic,” Steele said. “Any oxygen entering would have been disastrous. It was a tremendously risky proposition.”The silo holds 3,500 tonnes of pellets. Steele said that’s the energy equivalent of about 10,000 barrels of oil. The incident had the potential to have the entire surrounding city evacuated.The nitrogen injection equipment was brought to the facility from neighbouring Alberta within eight to 10 hours. Alberta’s oil fields have prompted the province’s first responders to be prepared for fire suppression missions to prevent explosions. The smouldering material in the silo was injected with nitrogen for a few days until it was safe enough to remove in small amounts. The nitrogen arrives as a liquid and needs to be turned into a vapour.“I think the first principle of it is, liquid nitrogen is an inert gas,” Steele said. “In other words, it can’t explode or burn. So you use it to push the oxygen out of the container and then try and seal it off. We tried with foam and various things, but once you’ve got the oxygen content below a certain level, [about] 10 per cent, you’ve minimized the risk of an explosion. So then you can start pulling the material out.”“We basically wetted it down, and over a course of seven days eliminated the risk, moved the material out, quenched the fire risk and then stockpiled it over in another part of our property,” Steele said.“I think the key thing is nobody overreacted… I don’t even think there was a Band-Aid.”Swaan and Steele said the cooperation between industry and first responders was what ensured a safe outcome.“This kind of incident has the potential of major, major injury. Our people knew how to safely handle the material and the first responders and fire department knew how to look after our people to keep them out of harm’s way,” Steele said. “They had the respiration equipment, they had the fire hoses, they had the ability and the technique for putting out a fire. Our people knew how to move the material through and safely evacuate the silo.”Half a million dollars-worth of material and product was destroyed and a lot of equipment was damaged, but Steele says everybody’s safety makes the situation a success. “It’s a happy beginning actually, because we’re beginning now to refit and add to our knowledge of our product and how to handle it,” he said. “And I think the whole industry is going to learn something from it too.” “I say anything that can be fixed with money is not a problem. You can’t fix people with money, particularly if they’re severely injured or killed.” “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ [a silo fire could happen] it’s ‘when,’” Swaan said. “But the good news is that we now as an industry have a lot of new learnings. We have experience that we can now share with the industry so that we can make it a safer industry for these types of situations.”Steele said, “The key thing is, think before you act, use other information, use your judgement, move deliberately, keep everybody safe.”This story was originally published in Canadian Biomass.
The BC Wildfire Service uses a ranking scale from one to six to quickly describe fire behaviour based on a set of visual indicators.
Wildland urban interface fires can be one of the most dangerous calls we go on, but perhaps not for the reasons you may suspect.   
The use of sprinklers for structural protection from wildfires was heavily employed in British Columbia during the summer of 2017. Crews from Lac La Biche County in northern Alberta spent six weeks there doing structural protection, which involved largely setting up sprinklers.
Increasingly, municipal firefighters are being called to fight wildland fires and fires in the wildland urban interface. Departments should cultivate a good understanding of wildland fire behaviour, suppression techniques, and above all, safety. One less familiar tactic municipal firefighters sometimes face is the use of bulldozers (dozers) in fireline construction. This article will provide an overview of why and how dozers are used to control wildfires.
As I’m writing this column, the news reported that three more deaths have been confirmed in the wildfires burning in northern California’s wine country, which were already the deadliest series of such fires in state history. The death toll had reached 42 by the afternoon of Oct. 20. An estimated 8,400 homes and businesses were destroyed. The photos of the fires, which caused more than US $1 billion in damages, are mind numbing.
The summer’s wildfire season in British Columbia’s Southern Interior was unprecedented: multiple fires started in our drought-ravaged area and kept us busy well into September.
Maybe having more than 800 kilometres of shoreline had something to do with Prince Edward County council’s decision to expand its fire department into ice-water rescue. Until February, the Prince Edward County Fire Department was limited to shore-based rescue, which is not uncommon in rural Ontario today.
Water/ice rescue tips for starting up a program for your coverage area

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