The County of Wetaskiwin fire departments saw a number of serious incidents in their 2017-18 season, including an explosion.
County Director of Emergency Services Mike Zajac stated the department’s work over the past year ran the gamut from emergencies to training.
The number one call-out that local fire departments cope with is the ubiquitous alarm call. Zajac said he doesn’t like to call them “false alarms.”
“If the alarm is going off, it’s for a reason,” said Zajac at his office Sept. 19. He said departments respond to all alarms and the departments have seen a higher number of alarms this year than last.
He noted, however, property owners can help the fire department with alarms b ensuring their alarm system is in good working condition and gets inspected annually. If a home or business alarm is going off often without an emergency, call your service provider to have it checked to prevent the fire department being called out. “It’s not the best use of resources,” said Zajac.
Structure or vehicles fires aren’t as common as they once were, but Zajac said firefighters had a unique situation on their hands this past summer: an explosion at Battle Lake on the August long weekend. He said firefighters were called to an RV that exploded; investigation revealed a gas-powered appliance had been removed but was leaking gas. An explosion occurred, with serious but non-life threatening injuries to two people.
Zajac said another major call-out that County of Wetaskiwin fire departments deal with is the motor vehicle collision. He said the county coped with a number of serious collisions over the past year. “Those are high,” he said, referring to the number of MVCs.
Zajac said many MVCs are avoidable; motorists should obey speed limits and signage, and never drive while impaired or distracted. “A lot of the onus is still on the operators themselves,” he said. “Don’t drive impaired, don’t text.”
He stated the county tries to prepare firefighters for stressful situations like MVCs, as serious injuries or deaths can be involved. Even worse, in a small community, firefighters often know the victims involved in a MVC.
Medical first response is also a major call-out for local fire departments. Zajac said it’s up to the municipality to decide what level of MFR it provides, as long as AHS minimums are met. He said MFR in a rural area can be critical, as ambulance response times are very difficult to predict. He said the county, after firefighters handle a MVC that involves death, will do a debriefing to give firefighters a chance to talk about what happened. Zajac said the sessions can have “a very heavy air.”
So far in 2018 the county has seen 383 call-outs, compared to 419 for all of last year. With over two months to go, Zajac said it looks like 2018 will be higher.
New equipment is vital to fire departments, as new innovations can improve firefighting techniques, while old equipment can be unreliable or expensive to maintain. Zajac said, “The county council here and administration have always been extremely supportive.”
He noted the entire County of Wetaskiwin fleet is relatively current, with a vehicle’s lifespan about 15 to 20 years and the county is preparing for new vehicles in Mulhurst Bay and South Pigeon Lake.
Zajac stated new fire trucks aren’t purchased off a lot; they have to be ordered and built from scratch which takes about a year. The county plans these purchases years in advance, and by careful planning and replacement, fire departments don’t have vehicles that nickel and dine them to death with breakdowns, upkeep and repairs. He said firefighters are more highly motivated with quality, reliable equipment.
Various departments have also been fundraising for “bush buggy’ type firefighting vehicles. These would be something like a side-by-side ATV or 4X4 pick-up that can enter thick trees or bush and fight fires that other vehicles couldn’t enter. Zajac said bush buggies also help reduce wear and tear on regular firefighting vehicles and tend not to be very expensive.
One of the newest situations includes recent ice and water rescue training undertaken by the South Pigeon Lake and Mulhurst Bay fire departments. Zajac said this is relatively new training, with one call-out involving kids and adults in canoes on Pigeon Lake. Apparently, some bad weather came up fairly quickly while the canoes were on the lake and the group needed some help from the fire departments.
Zajac noted some fire departments within the County of Wetaskiwin are operated by non-profit societies and hire their own fire chief. Zajac acts as liaison between fire societies and county council and noted the societies work very well to achieve goals and keep service levels high.
County residents who are interested in joining a fire department can either contact the County of Wetaskiwin office at 1-800-661-4125 or, if they know their closest department, contact them directly. He said basically all that is needed is a basic level of physical fitness.