Volunteer firefighters go back to school
Iqaluit program will train 80 people by end of the year
More than a dozen volunteer firefighters from the Baffin region return to their communities this week after being trained to tame fires that threaten their neighbours or their property.
Nunavut now counts 13 men and four more women as trained firefighting apprentices after they completed an internationally recognized program in Iqaluit.
The training session comes three months after the fire marshal’s office released a damning report exposing the territory’s substandard ability to keep Nunavummiut safe from fires. In the report, Fire Marshal Gerald Pickett outlined how communities lacked proper oxygen tanks, dependable water supplies, and communication systems to alert firefighters to the scene of a blaze.
Perhaps the most glaring shortfall was the absence of proper training for the territory’s 450 volunteer firefighters.
Although he said the training “had nothing to do with” the report, Don Corbett, the assistant fire marshal, said this recently beefed-up training program will ensure that Nunavut’s citizens and their property are safer than before.
“It’s important that every community has proper fire protection to protect both the citizens and the infrastruture,” Corbett said shortly before the training ended on Aug. 21. “[The training] is the exact same training a firefighter would get down south.”
Corbett, who oversaw the Iqaluit training, recently redesigned Nunavut’s firefighting training to bring volunteers together for 80 hours of intensive studying and practice in one of three regional centres. Before the spring, Corbett used to travel from community to community offering 40-hour classes to firefighters, who he said were either too busy, or didn’t remember to come.
“Having them here, they can learn a lot more,” Corbett said. “It’s better training that’s conducted here in Iqaluit, and we have the tools and equipment that we need to produce an excellent training program.”
Under the watchful eye of professional firefighters, the community volunteers donned heavy yellow suits near Iqaluit’s gravel pit, grabbed hoses and doused gasoline fires lit inside wrecked cars and sea lift containers.
They also studied and trained in the basics of firefighting: how to search buildings and remove people from dangerous situations; how to air out buildings filled with toxic fumes; and how to break down locked doors. They also reviewed how to handle ladders and hoses, how to handle oxygen tanks and masks, and how to maintain a reliable source of water.
Paul Kowmageak, fire chief for Cape Dorset, said training reminded him what the job was all about – handling dangerous situations and keeping the public out of harm’s way.
“Our goal is always to get to fires as quick as possible, and contain the fire as quick as possible,” he said.
But Kowmageak agreed with the fire marshal’s criticisms of a lack of equipment and the lack of training holding the communities’ back from providing an efficient and effective firefighting force.
He said lack of training and experience is so widespread that he’s often scared one of his firefighters won’t know what to do at the scene of a fire.
Kowmageak added that many volunteers skip out on weekly and bi-weekly practices.
Mosha Tunraq, a 29-year-old firefighter from Arctic Bay, said his team’s biggest challenges included working with poor equipment, including old and worn jackets, gloves, and oxygen tanks.
Tunraq said municipalities should increase funding to modernize their communities’ firefighting equipment.
“Two people back in Arctic Bay asked me ‘how safe are we?'” he said. “I said, ‘I’m not too sure, it depends how big or small the fire is’.”
The fire marshal’s office estimates that Nunavut will have 80 entry-level firefighters trained by the end of the year.