Facing down the flames

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St. Albert's newest firefighters get baptism by fire

The late-model Volkswagen is well past saving. It has a substandard paint job, the interior is shoddy and of course it is completely on fire because someone has actually set it ablaze.

In the moments before the three recruit firefighters approached the burning hulk, one of their trainers lit some straw and scrap wood that had been stuffed inside with a propane torch.

Instructors guide them in, but purposely walk them in on the wrong side of fire.

They open up the hose and the thick smoke is instantly replaced with a cloud of ever-expanding steam.

In a real car fire, this is exactly why crews would approach from the other side, without the smoke and steam in their face. The cloud of steam makes it impossible for the recruits to see the car in front of them.

Capt. Charles Tye, a 25-year veteran who helps run the recruit training programs, said they want to make sure recruits use all of their skills instead of tackling it the easy way, because in the real world things can change quickly.

“We brought them in from the smoke side, which is not quite typical of the way we fight a fire so that they can’t see, they have to listen and feel.”

To make it even more challenging, the recruits are using a fraction of the regular amount of water.

The fire hose is capable of delivering as much as 750 litres per minute. A standard volume would be 660, but for this blaze they are using only 110.

Tye said the fire hose could easily knock down a car fire in a matter of minutes, but to know if a firefighter has strong skills they have to train like this, with one hand behind their back.

Recruit Curtis Morrison said doing training like this ensures they are ready when they step onto a truck.

“They are trying to set us up for success so that once we get on the floor we can meet their expectations.”

St. Albert Fire Services has been running recruit training for the last three weeks with one left to go. This past week was the live fire training portion.

Recruits coming to the St. Albert department walk in with a wide range of training already under their belts.

At a minimum, the three recruits would have to be trained emergency medical technicians (EMT) and have taken a standard three-month fire fighting training course. All of this year’s class have skills that exceed the minimum.

According to Tye, the month-long course is more about testing the new recruits than training them.

“It is basically a competence program is what we would call it. If there are any skills that we find deficient, then we train them up to our standards.”

Les Mroz, the department’s chief training officer, said it is important to know the recruits can do everything they need to do before they step on a fire truck.

“I call it a boot camp, for lack of a better term. It is practical to see if the guys can do the skills required and if they can’t, we build them up.”

He said a real fire is no time to find out a recruit isn’t up to the task.

“It is a baptism of fire as opposed to a baptism of fire when there actually is one. This way we can predict what their actions are going to be.”

Morrison said he understands why the department does the training.

“We all had to work our tails off to be here. We earned these jobs, but we earned them from an HR standpoint. Now we have to earn them from a family standpoint.”

High expectations

A few minutes after the rookies tackled the fire the first time, it had rekindled again and the recruits are called back to work, but this time with fire extinguishers.

Tye said during training they often force the recruits back to work while they are recovering from one exercise and with little warning.

“We are trying to simulate what they are doing on the floor, trying to simulate that you are not always at your peak. Sometimes you are tired.”

Recruit Warren Hillier is making a career switch from the military into the St. Albert department and has prior experience from a part-time department in Saskatchewan. He has also taken several training courses on his own.

He said the training has been tough and the trainers are looking for more.

“They expect a lot more from us than what we came out of fire school with.”

Morrison, who has a decade of experience in part time departments, said while most of the training has been a great refresher course, he has also picked up new skills.

“In 10 years I haven’t been taught some of the things that I have been taught here. I haven’t even seen or heard some of it.”

Hillier said the other skills they are learning during the training is the department’s own practices and its specific tools.

As an example, he said when he used the department’s vehicle extrication tools in an earlier exercise, he had to adjust.

“They were a completely different set. We know how to use them. we just need to know how to use theirs.”

New faces

The latest set of recruits is part of a bigger change the department has seen in the last few years.

Over the last five years, the department has added more than 50 recruits, half the size of the current force.

Many of those new members were required when the province took over ambulance service, requiring more staff, but others would have been hired regardless as the department ages.

Tye said for years the department was the same people with very little change.

“It changes because we for so long had the same core people that you really work as a team and you know everybody,” he said. “We have to take into account that the people going into this call may not have had a call like this before. You can’t make assumptions.”

Mroz said the recruits are definitely up to the job and this helps assure the department of that.

“We can say with a lot of confidence when a guy finishes this program that he is ready to hit the street and be part of a crew, but also be mentored further.”

After the four-week program, the recruits will be on probation for a year with exams at the three-month, six-month and one-year mark.

Mroz said the department also welcomes recruits in the traditional way, which means new rookies do the same thing new firefighters have been doing for decades.

“The rookie is at the bottom of the list and there is that rookie expectation. It doesn’t matter if you are a young guy or an old guy, you are cooking the meals and doing the dishes.”

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