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Volunteer Vision: March 2010

Our condolences to the community of Point Edward, Ont., in the recent loss of volunteer firefighter Gary Kendall during an ice rescue training exercise.

March 15, 2010
By Brad Patton

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Our condolences to the community of Point Edward, Ont., in the recent loss of volunteer firefighter Gary Kendall during an ice rescue training exercise.

A quote from Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty: “A tragic event like this reminds us that many Ontario communities depend on the commitment and courage of volunteer firefighters. They give up time with their own family to protect other people’s families. They put their own safety at risk to make their community a safer place.”

It is truly a tragic event when a family and community lose a firefighter. On Jan. 30, the Point Edward Volunteer Fire Department was conducting an ice rescue exercise when things went tragically wrong, resulting in the loss of Gary Kendall. We must not let this deter us from training. Let’s learn, improve and never forget, or all our losses will have been in vain.

Training is one of the most important things we do. It is supposed to increase our safety, not threaten it. No one plans to put lives at risk during a training evolution; in fact, firefighter safety is always our priority. We go to great lengths to ensure safety while making the training scenarios as real as possible. This is where things get more difficult: How do we make it safe and keep it safe while conducting a real world training exercise?

I used to hear firefighters say they train one way but do things differently at the scene. If I ever heard that on the training ground, it would be time to stop everything, have a meeting and ask what needs to be changed. Do we need to change the way we train or do we need to change how we carry out our activities at the emergency? Maybe both have to change.

As far as I’m concerned, training officers have one of the toughest jobs in volunteer departments. Any time you see a good department, you know it has a good training officer. Training officers must do a lot of behind-the-scenes work well before they start teaching. They meet regularly with senior officers to ensure what they are teaching is what is going to be enforced in the field. The first step in good training is research. Training officers then write a lesson plan that is approved by the department. A lesson plan creates a written record of what is being taught, how it is being taught and who is doing the teaching. The first part of the lesson plan is to review all the applicable internal policies and standard operating guidelines, then to review – with everyone involved – any external regulations pertaining to the training/practice.

Ice rescue training is included on our department’s list of annual mandatory training. Every year, the lesson plan is reviewed and improved by the instructors, then followed by about eight hours of training.

Centre Wellington Fire & Rescue did an ice water rescue last year; we were called out for mutual aid by a neighbouring fire department for a vehicle that was swept off the road by flood water and fast-moving ice. When we arrived at approximately 2300 hours we discovered that a pickup was trapped in loose ice and was being forced down the river with the driver trapped on top of the cap. Crews donned immersion suits and water rescue PFDs with quick-release harnesses and helmets. They started into the ice field with ropes attached to haul teams on the shore. Problems soon began due to the unstable ice. The in-water crews would alternate among swimming, pushing the ice out of their way and climbing over the ice. Unstable pieces of ice would often roll over when crews were on top of them. It didn’t take long for the ropes to get tied up in the ice. The ropes became so tangled that the rescuers had to disconnect the ropes to safely reach the victim. In the end, everything worked out well and it was a great job done by the firefighters.

Premier McGuinty was absolutely right when he said: “A tragic event like this reminds us that many Ontario communities depend on the commitment and courage of volunteer firefighters. They give up time with their own family to protect other people’s families. They put their own safety at risk to make their community a safer place.” 

I would add this: Great volunteer fire departments all over Canada are committed to hours of training and, yes, sometimes that training is dangerous but so is the job they do protecting thousands of lives everywhere.

Ice water rescue is complex and every year we learn more and train better. If anyone has ideas or comments regarding how to improve our training, please contact me.


Brad Patton is fire chief for the Centre Wellington Volunteer Fire Rescue Department in Ontario. Centre Wellington, with a population of 28,000, covers 410 square kilometres and has stations in Fergus and Elora. Contact Brad at BPatton@centrewellington.ca


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