Neighbours in the area of Anderson Lane may have detected a slight odour of smoke this weekend, but it wasn’t a cause for concern. On the contrary, it was actually a reason to be reassured.
About 40 volunteer firefighters were trained at the Old Town station on the recognition and prevention of flashover. The Swede Survival System trailer, designed and delivered by Dräger Safety Canada, was parked outside the station. Firefighters took turns stepping inside for vital training on recognizing the dangerous signs that point to an enclosed area soon to become suddenly inflamed from floor to ceiling.
“It’s essentially a canister that allows us to observe fire conditions,” Fire Chief Nick Ruller explained. “We do live fire training at various occasions across the region, but a lot of our focus there is search and rescue and advancing hose lines. This allows us to see a fire go right through a growth phase, into rollover, and ultimately that canister (the top level) goes into flashover, which is not survivable.”
Jonathan Wong, Dräger’s regional sales manager, explained the fire is stoked in a thermally-lined burn barrel in the upper chamber, which is lined on all sides, top and bottom, with plywood. The separation of the two chambers allows the trainees to be protected in the lower section while observing the progression of the fire above.
Ruller said once an enclosed space has been engulfed, temperatures inside would exceed 1,200 degrees F and the gear worn by firefighters would only protect them for about two seconds.
“What this does is allow our members to see the signs and conditions that lead up to flashover, and in turn they are given strategies to counteract it,” he added. “There’s a lot of discussion in there on the effects of ventilation by opening the door, the effects of applying water and cooling gases even while you’re advancing toward the fire.”
Two instructors from Trident Fire Training and Consultancy led five or six volunteer firefighters at a time into the structure, while a rapid intervention team remained in close but safe proximity, ready to respond in the event of an emergency. Two fire trucks were parked outside and hoses were run into the trailer for use by the trainees.
In an actual fire situation there isn’t so much time for analysis of the situation, so Ruller explained that opportunities such as this for training are crucial.
“It’s time-sensitive,” Ruler said, “so we really push on intuitive decision-making, and that’s drawn from experience and your training. We study line-of-duty deaths and near misses in the fire services. We hear that their life flashes before their eyes.”
“That’s part of the fight or flight response,” Ruller continued. “Your mind is looking for something to draw from to get them out of the situation they’re in. What we’re doing here is giving them a deposit into that bank, so if they get into that situation, they can make that withdrawal. Without that type of experience they won’t be able to do that.”
Volunteers from all five Niagara-on-the-Lake stations were involved in the weekend-long training. Ruller was impressed with the willingness of the firefighters to give up their weekend for the valuable session.
“Nobody was forcing them to be here this weekend,” marvelled the chief. “They were all in. I was impressed with their willingness to learn, their
interest, and their engagement with the questions.”
The chief accompanied the first group into the canister and also joined the instructors and the volunteers inside the station for a debrief following the experience.
“They talked about how it was interesting to see the effects of ventilation,” Ruller said after the meeting. “They talked about the importance of door control and how it impacts fire growth. And how little water is required to change conditions in that compartment, and the effects of the steam in suppressing the fire. And how quickly fire regrowth occurs.”
For relatively new recruit Rebecca van der Zalm, it was her first time inside an enclosed space in a fire situation.
“I’ve never been in a burning building,” van der Zalm explained. “When we walked in I kind of hung to the back to see what was going to happen. By the time I went to the front I was really comfortable in handling the hose and watching the flames and the smoke over top of us.”
At the back of the trailer, van der Zalm said it was very dark inside, especially with smoke filling the lower chamber. She couldn’t see much beyond two of her fellow firefighters in front of her. The controlled environment, though, made her at ease in the training situation.
“It was very interesting to see the changes,” she said. “They (the instructors) were talking through it, explaining what they were going to do. We would watch for the smoke change, we would shoot a little bit of water and put the flame out. They would shut the door and everything would calm down. As soon as they opened the door and the oxygen came back it would ignite the fire again.”
For van der Zalm, it was also her first time handling the hose in a small confined area. Prior to stepping into the structure the volunteers had a crash course in handling the fire hose while laying flat on the ground.
“It was a sweet experience,” she enthused while smiling broadly. “I’m really glad I’m here.”
Ruller explained that through the weekend, each group would step into the canister twice.
“The next burn will be more focused on hose line advancement and backing out when conditions change. That’s the other element. When you know you’re in over your head, how do you safely back out from putting yourself at risk.”
Ruller reflected on his early career as a firefighter, when he found himself in some real-time situations where he and his colleagues faced rapidly changing conditions and had to retreat. At the time he had undergone specific training on how and when to retreat.
He jumped at the chance to host the Dräger system so volunteers from all NOTL fire stations would have the opportunity to be better prepared.
“We’re five kind of distinct urban areas,” said Ruller. “But we are very much one department. If we have a structure fire we’re getting trucks from all five stations. We have worked over the past five years to break down some of the silos and make sure we are one cohesive unit. A lot of standardization has occurred over the years.”
The weekend training was all about providing the best level of preparation possible, to ensure firefighters’ safety and survival every time they respond to situations across NOTL.
“If we don’t provide these opportunities, it leaves our firefighters vulnerable,” Ruller concluded. “It’s about meeting the needs of the volunteers, but in turn, it’s of tremendous value to the public as a result.”