CKFR Chief comfortable with two-tier trial run ‘for all the right reasons’

Ridgetown Station 11 recently had a busy stretch with three residential structure fires in a 12-day span.

The first incident occurred on Golf Course Line on Oct. 27, causing $250,000 in damage, followed by an apartment blaze on James Lane on Nov. 4, with an estimated $100,000 in damages. The third was a stubborn house fire on Main Street East on Nov. 7 with an estimated loss of $600,000.

At all three fires, there was a quick response from Station 11 Ridgetown firefighters and from Station 10 Orford firefighters, who were summonsed to the fires simultaneously with Station 11.

A two-station response to major structure fires and injury motor vehicle accidents is a new trial strategy that was implemented by Chatham-Kent Fire & Rescue in August.

“It’s our responsibility to continue to look at how we attend fires,” said Chris Case, CKFR Chief. “In the rural areas, we’ve had long practices of sending one station to a fire. That station arrives on scene, and if they decide they need more help, they make the call for help for a second station.”

Case said the volunteer firefighters at the second station then go through the same routine of driving to the station after being paged, boarding the trucks for the drive to a scene outside of their coverage zone.

Under the new trial system, the closest neighbouring department is dispatched simultaneously with the station where the major incident occurs.

“The idea is to make sure firefighters can get there as quickly as possible with the numbers and resources that are needed to deal with the incident,” said Case.

The CKFR researched past emergency calls and response times to assist in developing the two-station callouts.

“We take all the incidents we attend and categorize them,” Case said. “The dispatcher takes the 911 call and interrogates the caller to determine the call category.”

“If it’s a fire alarm in a large commercial or industrial building, a residential fire or an MVA with injuries or entrapment, we’ll send two stations automatically,” Case noted. “If it’s a call about a smoke alarm or minor MVA, like a car in a ditch with no injuries, we’ll send just the one station.”

Case and the CKRF Deputy Chiefs worked with the chiefs in the volunteer departments in the rollout of the two-station system and used their input to address some early concerns that developed. The chief said the two-station call-out “is a more measured response” and takes the onus off of the station chiefs to assess an emergency upon arrival and then call for help, as a second department is already responding.

“It’s all about the safety of the public and the safety of the firefighters because if you don’t send enough firefighters on the initial call, they’re all trying to do two or three jobs at once,” Case explained.

Adam Walters, CKFR Chief of Logistics, said the Oct. 27 fire on Golf Course Line was an example of the two-station response system working as intended.

“The structure fire was in Station 11’s coverage area and met the criteria to page out two stations automatically, so Orford 10 was dispatched simultaneously,” Walters said. “Station 10 was on scene an estimated 15 minutes ahead of what they would have under the previous deployment.”

Walters said Station 11 was able to set up for an aggressive interior attack, knowing Station 10 was on its way to assist.

“It’s extremely important to get resources to scenes quicker, not only for fire firefighters’ safety but also getting ahead of the fire sooner,” said Walters. “This was a good outcome to what could have been a much bigger loss.”

In this case, the timing of fires – 7:35 on a Friday morning – is another factor that went into the decision to implement the trial two-station response.

“What we’re beginning to see, sometimes during the day, we’re not getting the numbers we want for that initial first attack,” Case pointed out.

He said a major reason is volunteer firefighters who work a greater distance from their firehall and response area during the day as opposed to night calls when they are home.

“If a station has three trucks – as the majority of halls have a pumper, tanker and rescue – they will have a contingent of 20 firefighters, and we work on the assumption that half will show up for a call,” Case said.

Stations such as Ridgetown with an aerial ladder unit will have upwards of 25 firefighters, and 12 or 13 will attend a call.

“We’d like to see 15, 20 firefighters show up at a scene of a large fire. Hence, we decided that two stations will give you a minimum of 20 firefighters,” stated Case.

He said they can always cancel the second station if the responding station arrives on the scene and determines the fire or accident is less major than expected.

“That’s what we always say: get all the people you need, and if it’s not as bad as you first thought, send them back,” Case said. “We’d rather do that than have them desperately trying to battle a fire without the numbers they need.”

Case said volunteer firefighters are paid when they arrive at the station after answering their page, whether they go out on the call or not – a cost of $78 per call – which means cancelling a second department in the two-station response can be costly, just as a cancellation of a call in their own coverage zone.

“This is not about finances; it’s about making sure we have the people and resources at scenes as quickly as possible for their safety and the safety of the public,” Case said.

Another factor in adopting the two-station response is anticipating changes that could come when Dillon Consulting completes its Fire Master Plan, which has been in the works for over two years.

“They’re going to suggest changes, so I’m going to allow the Master Fire Plan to be published and see how that affects this (two-station response) and to get the feedback,” stated Case.

Case said he would like to continue with the two-station trial through the spring to get a better idea of how the system works around different times of the year.

“I’m comfortable doing this for all the right reasons,” ended Case.

Michael Bennett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News