A century of safety: Firefighters discuss fire escape safety and staffing struggles

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

This week marks the 100th anniversary of Fire Prevention Week. Firefighters across the country are hosting educational campaigns to remind the community on best practices for fire safety surrounding the theme “Fire won’t wait, plan your escape.”

Wayne Riches, captain of fire prevention education for the Fort Frances Fire Department, visits all corners of the community, from schools to businesses to senior homes, to ensure that everyone knows what to do in a fire emergency. “There’s lots to talk about, you know, and there’s so many varying audiences.”

The fire safety procedures required for senior homes differ from those at residential homes and at schools. Riches said it was important to gear presentations to the group. This week, Riches and his team delivered fire safety presentations to students in JK to grade three at St. Mary’s School, Robert Moore Public School, and JW Walker School. “What we’ll do is we’ll give them a [fire escape] plan to take home and fill out with their family. So that deals with the residential home kind of thing,” Riches said.

“But once we get into the seniors’ housing down here, we supervise fire drills, you know, through the places that run the seniors’ homes. So we’ll make sure that everybody knows what to do, especially since you’re dealing with seniors, and maybe there’s mobility issues that are non ambulatory.”

In addition to mobility issues, some seniors may have trouble hearing the fire alarm at night—another limitation that puts them at risk in emergency situations.

“The older you get, what we find is, sometimes some of the people may be inhibited by your medications, prescription medications, or eyesight or ear hearing loss,” Riches said. “So they may not hear the fire alarm as well, especially at night, if they’re sleeping. Or they may not, if they’re a patient, they may not see strobe lights going.”

Riches said that hospitals and senior homes should provide early notices to patients and residents in the case of a fire drill.

Supervising fire drills, educating on emergency response behaviors and providing resources are a few ways firefighters ensure the community is safe before emergencies happen. Riches noted that the fire department responds to all types of emergency calls including ice water rescue and medical calls, and that they are also “playing a catch up game” because COVID restrictions have made it difficult to host annual fire education presentations in schools and senior homes.

Riches said they plan to engage with the community more frequently, and also hope share about the challenges that the fire department has been facing.

Low recruitment and retention of staff and volunteers has been a notable challenge faced not only by the Fort Frances Fire Department but fire departments across the country. “Our volunteer numbers are way down just like everybody else,” Riches said. “And it’s challenging to try and find out how you recruit people, and how do you keep them here and keep them interested.”

The fire department’s volunteer roster is at less than half capacity. 24 makes the full complement for volunteer firefighters at the Fort Frances Fire Department, but they currently have around 11.

Riches said that several are on sick leave, and that not all volunteers are available at times because of other jobs and commitments. Sometimes, volunteer firefighters complete training but then realize that the job isn’t for them.

Riches said that the Fort Frances Fire Department is relatively small compared to other fire departments that have specialized areas, so many volunteers end up doing a variety of tasks such as fire suppression, motor vehicle extrication, medical calls, or public education, to name a few.

“I think that average turnaround rate for our volunteers is about three years, on average, like we’ve got someone who has been with us for a long time, but then some get in to get trained, and then they realize it’s not for them. So yeah, I guess around three or three and a half years is the average turnaround.”

For those that remain as a volunteer, they are given opportunities to be hired as a firefighter full time because those are often selected from the volunteer pool. The department is looking to hire at least eight more volunteer firefighters. “But I know we don’t have anywhere near eight people interested,” Riches said.

He hopes that visiting schools is also an opportunity to garners interest within students who may consider being a firefighter down the line. “Maybe down the road they’re going to remember that and have an interest in the fire service, you know, as they get older.”

“I’d encourage anybody if we have an open house, or even when we’re out doing community events that come and chat with us,” Riches said.

At yesterday’s council meeting in the township of Emo, Alberton, Chapple, Emo & La Vallee (A.C.E.L.) Fire & Emergency Services fire chief Tyrell Griffith said they hope that students would share with their parents about the need for volunteer firefighters. This topic followed a discussion about a memorandum of understanding between the fire department members and the use of personal protective equipment when responding to emergencies outside of their area.

“And we have a number of fire prevention things that we tried to send home with the kids and one of the thoughts that we sent home is: go home and check your smoke alarms, go home and make an escape plan, but also, maybe go home and ask mom and dad have they thought about being being on the fire department,” Griffith said.

“Because they can it’s totally within their within their abilities is within their scope. It’s not a it’s not an impossible task or unrealistic dream that mom and dad could be on the fire department. Doesn’t mean they have to go internal or inside of a burning building. They can still be 100% safe and fill a very very big void that their community.”

A.C.E.L. fire department has had three new recruits but are still looking for more.

“I want to thank counsel for for providing me the ability [to recruit] through the budget to bring on people but the issue that I run into is there’s just no people to bring on.”

The A.C.E.L. Fire & Emergency Services invites everyone to the open house and barbecue on October 15 from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. to tour the fire hall.

Fire Prevention Week is observed the week of October 9 to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 which killed an estimated 300 people, destroyed 17,400 structures, and left 100,000 people homeless. The official cause of the fire was unknown, but speculations have suggested that a barn animal kicked over a lantern which caused the fire. Those who survived escaped the fire by the river or any means necessary.

Since then, the Great Chicago Fire changed the way firefighters and public officials thought about fire safety and prevention, influencing how cities are built and emergencies are responded to.