The Huntsville/Lake of Bays Fire Department has been working steadily to increase its training ground located at its fire station in Port Sydney. One of the critical uses of the training ground is the department’s ability to host live fire training.
“It’s one of the most important jobs we perform,” said Paul Calleja, training and suppression captain. “Our job is to protect life and property and it’s difficult to find a way to simulate reality in training. We used to do that with acquired structures where people would give us old buildings and we’d get to play around with them for a weekend or so. But they can be dangerous and they take a lot of work to make them safe enough to train in. With the facility we have, it gives us an event as close to reality as we can get for a member of our department with what they will experience during a true fire, in regards to heat, smoke and the stresses that go along with it. It keeps them sharp.”
Calleja noted that as a volunteer department, members may not attend a lot of fire calls individually as most have other jobs.
“To have someone that gets a lot of experience on a handline inside a structure is difficult to do,” he said. “That’s a good problem because that means they don’t have a lot of fires, but because it’s such a dangerous job it’s important to keep those skills sharp. It keeps them safe. It allows them to do a job more efficiently and keeps their skills sharp enough to recognize when things are going well, but also when things aren’t going well and they can make the necessary adjustments to keep themselves and their crew safe.”
The training grounds are part of a five-phase plan from 2010.
“We have been working through that five-phase plan. We’re not quite finished yet, we do still have significant needs to complete the training ground but we’re well on our way,” said Calleja. “What we currently have far surpasses the majority of fire departments, not just around us, but in the province. There are even career [full-time] departments out there that can’t boast a training ground specifically with a facility to do live fire training in.”
Calleja said the training grounds need a better water supply and the ability to train in a multi-level unit.
“With how Huntsville proper is growing, with the bigger structures, to have a structure that we can actually train in with a multi-level fire attack—because that’s a whole other discipline in and of itself—when you move a fire from the ground level to a third, fourth, or fifth floor then the challenges become even greater. So a facility to be able to train in that would enhance what we do.”
Calleja said the property has the space they just need the material to do it.
During a live fire training weekend in November, councillors from Ward 1, Jason FitzGerald, Dione Schumacher, and Bob Stone, were fitted with gear and participated, in an observatory role, as firefighters went through various scenarios.
“I learned there is absolutely zero visibility in a fire situation, which I didn’t think would be the case, and how every event could be life threatening and how much communication and teamwork is involved,” said FitzGerald. “It was a very exciting and I was very impressed by the leadership and the knowledge and the respect that he [Calleja] has for all of the firefighters and that they have for him.”
“I thought I’d be a detriment because my vision isn’t great to begin with,” said Schumacher. “But some of the volunteers were saying they train with wax paper [in their masks] and some said they have 20/20 vision and you still can’t see. It was interesting to get that they are down on the ground searching for bodies, for a lack of a better word, it’s kind of morbid but that’s what it is. All those experiences that they have to do. I learned how hot a fire can be. I was in the observing part and the fire was in another room but you can still feel the heat that’s coming through. There’s no time for fear or second guessing yourself. They’ve made that choice and good on them. I learned what my father did for 17 years.”
“It was freaking awesome,” were the words out of Stone’s mouth when he came out of the burn can. “It was a thrill, it was a terror, it was an experience. I remember as a kid watching the fire truck go by and the firemen were hanging on to the back of the truck because that’s how they did it back then and they were racing into danger and excitement and I always dreamed I could do that. The experience I had there was everything I had dreamt it was. It was wonderful and terrifying and I knew I was safe because Paul was there at my side. I was surprised how technical everything was, and done with military precision. I expected the smoke and the heat but didn’t think it was going to be that intense. I learned everybody had a role to play and it was critical and it was dangerous if you didn’t do a good job in that role.”
They all agreed having the training grounds was valuable experience for members of the department.
“I think it’s essential and am happy that council allocates funding for it, especially with a volunteer base you need that time to build the team and communication to be effective and safe,” said FitzGerald. “It shed new light on their level of commitment to keeping the community safe.”
“It was amazing to see the amount of effort put into developing it,” said Schumacher. “I know there were some…it was their first time doing some of that training. You could see a lot of thought was put into that to give the volunteers a chance to understand what a live experience is and of course to debrief and learn from the experience.”
Calleja noted that planning for a live fire training weekend begins about three months ahead of time.
“It just depends on the size and the scope of the group you’re dealing with,” he said. “If you’re doing it for one small platoon of six to 10 people it takes a lot less to get involved. But when you’re doing it for an entire department that consists of 90 members and you’re doing multiple burns over a couple of weekends, to coordinate the resources you’re going to require, palettes and straw, and to make sure you have the people you need to support the training event, because that’s just as important and then coordinate a schedule, it’s about a three-month process before you actually light fire into a crib.”
“For the volunteers to be able to have that access to try to get as close to a normal experience is vital to then how you’re going to answer the calls that are going to help our community,” said Schumacher. “So being able to simulate a brush fire because that’s something that’s going to happen in our area, car accidents, fires in basements are going to happen. So to be able to have the opportunity and a training course is vital for their learning and growth and skill development as a fire department and as a team. They have to be able to work together as a team to go in and get the outcome they need.”
“It was such a thrilling experience that you could charge people money to come and experience that. It’s better than any amusement ride that I’ve been on,” said Stone. “I realized what I was experiencing did not even come close to what they would face in a real fire, and I’m talking about the furniture you trip over, not knowing what’s around the next bend or how many rooms you need to get through to get to the fire, so in that sense I think that having the training grounds is absolutely imperative to get some live fire experience and training with your team before you face that real danger.”
The Town of Huntsville acquired the property through the G8, which is when the five-phase plan was put together. To date it’s been a joint effort between the Town, various grants (TransCanada PipeLines), and the provincial government.
“Between the three organizations we’ve been able to get the training ground to where it is now, but we really do have a ways to go,” said Calleja. “We have some members that are career members in other municipalities and they don’t receive the type of training that a lot of our membership does here. We’re fairly thorough and it’s pretty extensive for what we do. There’s a lot of hours that are spent—and that goes to the dedication of our volunteers, our paid on-call staff—that you make yourself available to take that training. I can set up all the training in the world but if you’re not showing up then it doesn’t matter. So it’s a two-way commitment, in that we want to do the training and the people on our department show up for it, which is so important.”
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