FFHS students tackle firefighting program

Ken Kellar

For the past few months, some students at Fort Frances High School have been taking part in a unique learning experience designed to give them valuable real world experience.

The school, in partnership with the Fort Frances Fire Management Headquarters (FMH) of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), has run a specialized version of the SP100 Forest Firefighter Training course.

Brandon Soyatt, a fire operations technician with the MNRF, noted that the SP100 covers a lot of ground.

“Through delivery and participation of the SP100 entry-level forest firefighter training program, students are going to learn about employment opportunities within the Ministry as well as the fundamentals of forest firefighting, which is a prerequisite for seasonal employment as a Fire ranger,” Soyatt said.

The program being offered at the high school provides a benefit to both the students who are taking it as well as the Ministry when it comes time to recruit more firefighters in the summer months.

“It came about because AFFES (Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services) is looking at new ways to educate students and generate interest in various employment opportunities that are available in fire,” Soyatt said.

“So by targeting students locally, we hope to see an increase in local applicants for positions at the FMH.

“Through discussion with the high school admin, it was determined that delivery of the SP100 would be an effective means for students to also obtain an elective credit through course participation, as well as educate them on the opportunities and teach them the fundamentals of firefighting.”

Soyatt explained that local recruitment is important in the program, as the FMH hires 60 personnel during the fire season, 40 of whom are Fire rangers who can come from all over the province.

While the SP100 course being run at the high school will be officially recognized as a prerequisite for a job as a Fire ranger with the ministry, the delivery has been adapted to fit the high school schedule.

“The SP100 course is normally a 40 hour course delivered over five consecutive days, so the schedule’s been adjusted to take place from September to November,” Soyatt said.

“The biggest challenge probably is that we didn’t target a specific class, so scheduling was a bit of an issue, but with AFFES and the school both maintaining flexibility, we managed to pull it off.”

Once the program was in full swing though, students learned a wide range of firefighting techniques and theory, in addition to getting some valuable hands-on experience.

“The course basically primarily focuses on safety and will prepare the students for an entry level role as a firefighter,” Soyatt explained.

“So they’re learning to maintain and operate firefighting equipment, communications equipment, orienteering, camping skills. All theoretical portions are taught in the classroom with presentations, however we’re also supplementing with fireline experiences that relate these lessons to real-life events.”

The field portions of the course, which Soyatt noted were most of the students’ favourite part of the program, were held at the Sportsman’s Club on Frog Creek Road earlier in the fall to avoid students being outside for long periods of time in the colder weather.

“Field sessions include various pump set-ups, troubleshooting a power pump, strangling the fire hose–which is where you clamp the hose with a tool called stranglers, to add or remove a length–proper nozzle techniques and nozzle operations as well as aircraft operations,” Soyatt said.

The course also provided students with a demonstration of the Wildland Firefighter Exchange (WFX) Fitness test, which simulates many of the strenuous physical demands put on a Fire Ranger during the work season, from hauling heavy pumps and backpacks over rough terrain to dragging fully charged hoses through the brush.

Successful completion of the WFX Fit test, the SP100 course and standard first aid are all required to be eligible for a job as a fire ranger.

As grueling as portions of the course may sound, Soyatt and FFHS teacher Tracy Rob both noted that it has generated a significant amount of interest among students at the school.

“This course delivery has generated a lot of positive interest both at the FMH and at the High School,” Soyatt said.

“We’ve had 20 participants enrol in the course this year, we’ve also had students expressing interest for next year and the following year, apparently even younger students are saying ‘how will I be able to do this in two, three years?”

“We were nervous we weren’t going to fill the course, and then ended up with kids looking for it,” Rob explained.

“Now we have kids asking about it for three years down the road, so I think once we had it going and the students were experiencing it and talking about it with their peers it’s really become something popular that people are excited about.”

While an individual must be 18 years old to apply for a job as a fire ranger, the age of requirement to take the SP100 program is 17, meaning students can take the course and be that much more prepared to apply for a job once they’re old enough. It provides valuable hands-on learning, something Rob said has been a push from the provincial government.

“There’s been a lot of push from the province to try and promote experiential learning, and really ensuring that all of our students are having opportunities to see how what they’re learning in school applies to the real working world,” Rob said.

“This was something that we saw as an opportunity to partner with the community . . . and we know that with our diversity in the building, some students would excel in this type of work, but may not know how to access it if they need to find the course on their own, so giving them the opportunity to get that credential now, and experience and see what work training looks like first-hand may set them on a better path and just kind of help them find their way once they’re out of our building.”

The integration of the SP100 course into a high school curriculum first happened in Red Lake, but Soyatt said more communities in the region are following suit.

This is the first time Fort Frances High School has offered the course, though the student interest generated so far suggests that there is an interest in seeing it offered again in the future.

Soyatt noted that even though the course is tailored towards firefighting skills, there is still wider value in taking the SP100.

“The curriculum is specific to fire fighting intentionally, however a lot of the content is very transferable,” he said.

“There’s modules like camp set-up, compass and navigation, orienteering, health and safety, wellness, as well as teamwork and human factors in the workforce, so there’s definitely a lot of transferable skills that they can get from this.”