Volunteers must be prepared
By Kirk Hughes
It’s evening, that period just after supper and before you go to bed. The kids are asleep and, despite the television being on, you’re on your phone checking social media and looking at funny cat pictures.
Then it happens. The tones drop. Dispatch comes on and gives you information about a possible structure fire just outside your community. Multiple calls have been received. You get up from the couch and hurry to your room to put on some more appropriate clothing before heading outside to start your vehicle. Getting to the firehall takes about six minutes and if you want to make a truck and get to the fire in time to have any impact you need to get moving.
Response time to any emergency is of critical importance to fire departments all across Canada.
Preparation begins with the individual firefighter. The first step is to prep your individual kit. Having pants, socks, t-shirt (weather depending of course) and boots placed in a dedicated area negates time lost searching for clothing in the dark or in a panic. Ensuring the vehicle used to respond to the hall is clear of snow, full of gas and angled out and not blocked in is also a strategy, aiding in faster reaction times. Another trick is to put the keys to that vehicle in a place that is consistent. Looking for keys or eyeglasses is a time-killer.
Responding from your house to the hall has to be done in a professional and safe manner. Planning ahead will ease that strain. Drive the route under normal conditions. Know the back streets and alleys that you could use in the event of obstruction. Identify hazards you want to avoid such as school zones, playgrounds and seniors’ complexes when travelling to the station. Understand road conditions, watch the weather forecast for precipitation and account for those factors when you respond.
Another innovative way to reduce the timeframe from house to hall is to use a green light. This is unique in Canada and used by many rural departments in many provinces. Some, like Alberta and Ontario, have it written into their legislation. By mounting a green light inside a personal motor vehicle, a statement is being made that you are a firefighter, likely a volunteer, and, when activated, that there is an emergency that requires attending. This may seem like an easy venture to partake in, but it isn’t successful unless an educational component is attached to it.
The first stage is ensuring firefighters using the lights understand their obligations and responsibilities under respective provincial traffic safety acts. Firefighters must know that the use of a green light provides no special privileges and all normal traffic control devices and regulations have to be followed.
Once firefighters understand those requirements, the second and more difficult phase begins – creating awareness amongst the public. Not every driver knows what a flashing green light signifies. Posting signs in your municipality that explain what a green light means is a great way to focus that message on anyone that enters your communities via a roadway. Social media posts, school talks and community events are also perfect ways to distribute the message. Green lights do not require another motorist to pull over, but it is a courtesy to yield the right-of-way to the responder, thus clearing the path to the hall.
Once at the hall, there are still numerous little ways to speed things up. First, adequate parking is a must. In the Northwest Territories, this includes space for snow machines and snowmobiles. Safe parking spaces that are away from responding bay doors and exit routes is a consideration. Once parked, having the main door open for firefighters to enter through is a big help. Some departments open one of the bay doors, usually the door without the responding apparatus coming out of it, which allows firefighters moving from the parking lot to gain access to the hall without having to use keys to open locks or punch in access codes to pull the door open and gain entry. Arriving at the lockers, a firefighter should have stored his or her turnout gear in such a manner as to assist with rapid donning. Pre-rolled pants over the boots with gloves and balaclava attached to the coat save time.
Technologically speaking, the use of firefighter responder apps on cellular devices are beneficial for telling departments who is on the way, sometimes how long it is expected to take them and provides the crucial data of how many firefighters are responding. Knowing who is coming and their specific skill sets and capabilities not only speeds up truck response, but it also arms an officer with advanced knowledge of the differing levels of experience available when a truck arrives on-scene.
Responding to a call from the station often requires advanced training from the officer and driver. The officer must know where the call is, the quickest way to get there, and be aware of any barriers to the response. The driver must have knowledge of emergency vehicle operations, provincial traffic act rules regarding lights and siren usage, and be skilled enough to maneuver a vehicle under stressful conditions.
Post-call review is also an important component to enhancing response times. Determining a department’s level of service is the first step. NFPA 1720 is the standard to strive for. Ignoring that standard is poor planning. Acknowledging the existence of that standard and working on complying accordingly is the right avenue to take. Gaining input from firefighters on how to further expedite responses is also worth a debrief after the call.
Kirk Hughes is deputy fire chief of the M.D. of Taber Regional Fire Department in Alberta. A veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Kirk served with the Burlington, Ont., Portage la Prairie, Man., Deline, N.W.T., Fort Providence, N.W.T., and Behchoko, N.W.T., fire departments before taking a position with the Municipal District of Taber as the director of community safety.