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October 30, 2014
By Les Karpluk

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Oct. 30, 2014, Prince Albert, Sask. - I recently had the opportunity to present at the Southern Alberta Fire Department Conference in Lethbridge. I also had the privilege during the conference to listen to three men who are passionate about changing the fire service.

Prince Albert, Sask., Oct. 30 – I recently had the opportunity to present at the Southern Alberta Fire Department Conference in Lethbridge.

I also had the privilege during the conference to listen to three men who are passionate about changing the fire service. I do not have the space in this blog to get into an in-depth description about their presentations, but I do want to point out to the Canadian fire service that these three men are each, in their own ways, making a difference saving firefighter lives.

The first is my friend Dr. Rich Gasaway, who travels more than 200 days each year spreading his message that situational awareness matters (SAMatters). Gasaway’s SAMatters message is based on his doctoral research into hundreds of firefighter line-of-duty deaths, case studies and close call reports.

I was fortunate to catch two of Gasaway’s sessions – his keynote presentation and his speech at the closing banquet. Here are a few of my notes:

•    Situational awareness is about perceiving clues from the environment, being able to understand what those clues mean, and then using this information to predict a future event in time to avoid bad outcomes.
•    The left brain (rational/logical) does not work well under stress.
•    The sense of sight and sound will compete for space in your brain during high levels of stress.
•    Firefighters need to have education and practical skills so they understand why they must do something.
•    If you train correctly, you need to learn to trust your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, believe it and get out.
•    Sometimes we are taking the victims of a fire to the fire in a fire truck.

I really could write more, but in the interest of blogger space and reader time, I  encourage every firefighter to visit Gasaway’s website and enroll in his SAMatters on-line academy.

Several months ago Jeff Dill and I exchanged some emails regarding firefighter suicide. Jeff founded the Firefighter Behaviour Health Alliance (FBHA) that is dedicated to educating the fire service about suicide awareness and prevention. Jeff travels the United States and now Canada, giving presentations and a four-hour workshop titled Saving Those Who Save Others.

At the conclusion of Day 1 at the Lethbridge conference, Rich, Jeff and I had a conversation about firefighter suicide, depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The next day, I sat in on Jeff’s presentation and here is the executive summary of my notes:

•    There is no mandate to report firefighter suicides to the FBHA.
•    Few firefighters or fire departments want to talk about suicide.
•    A very small percentage of firefighter suicides are reported to FBHA.
•    Retired firefighters are committing suicide.
•    PTSD can be one of the contributing factors of firefighter suicide.

There is obviously much work to be done in this area, but Jeff’s message is that he wants to educate the fire service on suicide prevention and save those who so often save others.

On Feb, 14, 2007, my deputy chief, union executive members and I were among the 2,000 firefighters, police officers, paramedics and soldiers who marched in downtown Winnipeg to honour captains Harold Lessard and Tom Nichols. The line-of-duty deaths of Lessard and Nichols as a result of a flashover in a house fire were tragic, not only for the Winnipeg fire service, but also for the entire Canadian fire service.

I will never forget that during the memorial service at the MTS Centre, there was a buzz around us about the fact that a Winnipeg firefighter who was burned in the house fire was in one of the centre’s private booths. Firefighter Lionel Crowther suffered severe burns at the house fire; he was able to attend the service because the private booth was turned into a makeshift medical room.

This background information is important because I finally got to meet Crowther in Lethbridge and attend his session titled Surviving Survival. Crowther took the audience through the events that led to the tragic deaths of captains Lessard and Nichols.

He also took the audience on his long road to recovery from not only the burns he suffered, but also the mental and emotional battles he had to overcome to get his life back. Some of my notes from Crowther’s session include:

•    The physical healing occurred, but the mental healing was something he didn’t take into consideration.
•    The suffering impacts the whole family.
•    Crowther had to want to get back into the profession, because he wanted it, and for no other reason.
•    There is more to life than being a firefighter.
•    Understand the value of life.

To be honest, it is hard to put into words what it is like listening to a firefighter who literally escaped death and lived to talk about it. While Crowther was talking I had vivid images of the day we walked through downtown Winnipeg and entered the MTS Center and the conversations with people I never knew; we were all there for same reason – to honour the lives of Lessard and Nichols.

Now as a master instructor for the IAFF fire-ground survival program, Crowther is doing his part to educate firefighters so they can do their jobs more safely. 

These three men are doing whatever they can to make the fire service better and I am indeed fortunate to have had the opportunity to listen to their messages in Lethbridge while attending the Southern Alberta Fire Department Conference. Keep up the life saving work gentlemen!

Les Karpluk is the retired fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. He is a graduate of the Lakeland College Bachelor of Business in Emergency Services program and Dalhousie University’s Fire Administration and Fire Service Leadership programs. Follow Les on Twitter at @GenesisLes


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