Pulling together to save lives at Fire Station 12

By Julie Houle Cezer

Imagine yourself hanging over the side of a building, suspended by ropes. Does that sound like a requirement of your workday? It might well be if you were among the firefighters operating out of the fire station located at the corner of O’Connor and Fifth Avenue in the Glebe. That’s Fire Station 12, where maintaining a high level of competency through ongoing training in both high-angle rescue and heavy rescue is just as much a part of the job as constant honing of firefighting skills.

This high-angle rescue training simulates a rooftop rescue. Firefighter Phill Hutt descends via a two-rope pulley system while stabilizing the horizontal litter in which the victim is lying.

This high-angle rescue training simulates a rooftop rescue. Firefighter Phill Hutt descends via a two-rope pulley system while stabilizing the horizontal litter in which the victim is lying. Photo: Lois Siegel

That is because firefighters stationed in the Glebe, like all responders at the 45 full-time and volunteer stations in the Ottawa Fire Service (OFS), provide both general emergency fire services and specialized rescue operations that can be dispatched at a moment’s notice. These teams may function on their own or complement other emergency workers and be deployed to any district of the city, whether urban or rural.

As they descend, the three members of the OFS crew, Jeff Markham, Luc Marshall and Marc Messier, all eyes on the action, pull together as one to create an effective and dynamic counterweight to ensure a smooth descent. Photo: Lois Siegel

As they descend, the three members of the OFS crew, Jeff Markham, Luc Marshall and Marc Messier, all eyes on the action, pull together as one to create an effective and dynamic counterweight to ensure a smooth descent. Photo: Lois Siegel

This happy outcome is the result of the reorganization of the fire services following amalgamation in 2001. With this system of uniform service across the city, residents can count on a wider range and more qualified level of emergency services in their communities. Such services may include combinations of ice and water rescue, medical emergencies, hazmat (hazardous materials) incidents, confined and inaccessible spaces and motor-vehicle extrication. The last three of these are the areas of specialized rescue operations that concern the Station 12 responders. The high-angle training involves the specialized use of ropes, anchoring and belaying, as well as lowering individuals on litters and stretchers. In the urban area, this technique has been utilized in the rescue of incapacitated construction workers (crane operators) or those caught in building collapses, as well as individuals caught on low and high-rise rooftops or ledges. In the country, it comes into play in cliff or ravine rescues. High angle is also a critical technique in confined spaces such as elevators and sewers in the city and in silos or wells in the rural area.

For images of the full sequence of events, click here

Recently, photographer Lois Siegel and I had the opportunity to witness an afternoon training session in high-angle rescue at Fire Station 12, at the invitation of Marc Messier, public information officer for the OFS. Using the roof of the station, this scenario simulated the rescue of a victim from a rooftop. Following tightly scripted operating procedures, the ropes were anchored on a ladder truck, itself stabilized at four points, and the belaying system set up. Then the rescuer accessed the roof by ladder and a litter was hoisted to the rooftop by ropes attached just below the aerial ladder’s platform.

After assessing any injuries, rescuer Phil Hutt takes many steps to safely “package” the victim for safe transport in the litter or rescue basket. These four photographs capture moments in the process. Photo: Lois Siegel

After assessing any injuries, rescuer Phil Hutt takes many steps to safely “package” the victim for safe transport in the litter or rescue basket. Photo: Lois Siegel

After assessing for injuries, stabilizing and “packaging” the victim on the horizontal litter, rescuer Phil Hutt secured himself to the litter and both he and the victim were lifted off the roof to begin a descent to the ground. The speed and trajectory of that descent were controlled by the belaying, or dynamic counterweight, provided by three officers on the ground working in concert (see photo on front page). Firefighter veteran Marc Messier estimated that, depending on the circumstances, the average time for the rescuer’s ascent and descent with a victim would be about 20 minutes.

Stephane Chasles holding the Holmatro hydraulic spreaders or jaws of life. Photo: Lois Siegel

Stephane Chasles holding the Holmatro hydraulic spreaders or jaws of life. Photo: Lois Siegel

More common in the public’s eye than high-angle manoeuvres is the heavy-rescue team’s use of hydraulic tools which include the jaws of life in extricating accident victims from mangled motor vehicles. Until recently, it was not unusual to see the firefighters honing their cutting skills on wrecks in the fire station’s back parking lot. However, that training has now been moved to a more remote lot due to concerns about contaminants and cleanup. The Glebe Report will bring you photos of the jaws of life training in print or online as soon as that can be scheduled. Readers may be surprised to learn that they can lend material support to this training by making use of the Ottawa Fire Services’ Vehicle Donation Program that “facilitate(s) the donation of scrap vehicles directly to the Fire Service for training purposes in exchange for a $500 tax receipt (as you would receive for other charitable donations)” (See the City of Ottawa website at http://bit.ly/1gVKaA1).

FIRE STATION 12 IS HOME BASE

Photo: Lois Siegel

Photo: Lois Siegel

The relatively small Fire Station 12, built in 1974, is home base not only for four crews or platoons of seven firefighters each but also for the three service vehicles depicted above. They stand ever at-the-ready with doors open and bunker gear turned out – the 2009 pumper truck (far left) carrying a crew of four, the 2010 heavy-rescue truck (far right) with three firefighters and the 2009 technical rescue truck (middle) that ensures a mobile supply of essential rescue equipment. Regular maintenance and safety checks of the vehicles are imperative to ensure absolute reliability during emergencies. Platoons spend a good part of their working hours (in cycles of seven 24-hour shifts per 28 days, or an average of 42 hours per week) cleaning, checking operability, training and organizing the gamut of firefighting equipment – from sledge hammers to air tanks. Equally important for optimal performance is the need for firefighters to maintain their own fitness levels and, in addition to targeted training, to engage in activities that support trust and communication among them. They absolutely depend on each other in order to deliver emergency services as a well-coordinated and effective fire and rescue unit, and to make sure that every one of them gets to go home. Since they spend full-day stints together, including preparing and sharing meals and catching some shut-eye dormitory style, perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that Fire Station 12 becomes something of a second home and an extended fire family for each and every firefighter.

OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY

Safety measure: Any bunker gear (protective clothing) not immediately taken post-fire to be cleaned at the Carling Avenue facility is kept in a sealed room to prevent off-gassing of contaminants into the fire hall and living quarters of the firefighters.Photo: Lois Siegel

Safety measure: Any bunker gear (protective clothing) not immediately taken post-fire to be cleaned at the Carling Avenue facility is kept in a sealed roomto prevent off-gassing of contaminants into the fire hall and living quarters of the firefighters.Photo: Lois Siegel

Granted, firefighting, with its ethos of saving lives, has always been a risky calling without much attention paid to the long-term health costs to firefighters. However, over the last decade, progress has been made in identifying, voicing and responding to these impacts on health. This has resulted in changes in policies, procedures and in implementing technological solutions. Further, efforts continue to change old attitudes that once enabled silence in the face of illness and trauma. No more is the image encouraged of “the only real firefighter [is] a dirty firefighter,” a figure seemingly indestructible, but with face covered in black soot. The facts and the consequences are undeniable. Mounting medical evidence has shown that working at high temperatures and long-term exposure to burning contaminants, explosive gases, and carcinogenic smoke is resulting in cancer rates among firefighters well above those of the general population.

Despite body, head, face and respiratory protective equipment, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate and testicular cancer as well as heart attacks are all taking a toll on the lives of the very fire and emergency personnel whose work is to save the lives of others. It is sobering that in 2009, the average age of death of an active firefighter was just under 46 years compared to the 78 years for an Ontario male (fitasafirefighter.ca). In addition, rescue operations that sometimes become grisly recovery scenes take a psychological toll in the long run. Notwithstanding individual differences in psychological resilience in the face of acute trauma and prolonged stress, healthy firefighters who begin their careers with an “empty bucket” gradually accumulate enough psychologically challenging events to find themselves overwhelmed by the one drop of trauma too many.

Safety measure: Diesel fumes from the pumper truck that previously contaminated the inside of the fire station are now vented via the piping system through the roof. Photo: Lois Siegel

Safety measure: Diesel fumes from the pumper truck that previously contaminated the inside of the fire station are now vented via the piping system through the roof. Photo: Lois Siegel

Fortunately, firefighting culture is beginning to allow for more sensitive, early and sensible responses to the need for support for emergency professionals who, for all their courage, are ultimately mortal beings just like the rest of us.

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