New mobile command unit welcomed addition

Duane Hicks

Versatility is the key word when describing the Fort Frances Fire and Rescue Services’ new emergency mobile command unit, which was publicly showcased yesterday outside the fire hall.
Fort Frances Fire Chief Gerry Armstrong, who also is the Community Emergency Management Co-ordinator (CEMC), said the $84,000 command unit, which was 55 percent funded by the town and 45 percent by the federal Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP), is a welcome addition to the local force.
Among its several uses, the mobile command unit is to be a base of operations during emergencies and natural disasters.
Chief Armstrong said it can be set up anywhere and is self-sufficient, with its own communications equipment, generator, air conditioning, furnace, interior lighting and exterior spotlights, tables, desks, and even a bathroom.
He noted the communications system includes a satellite phone and digital communications so they’re not reliant on phone lines or a radio tower.
It even has a fax machine that runs off Blackberries, so they can fax Emergency Management Ontario if the town has to declare a state of emergency.
The main part of the command unit is a working space, complete with tables, chairs, wall maps, and strategic planning boards.
“This becomes the area of the unified command,” Chief Armstrong explained. “So you’ve got EMS, police, fire, whatever the case may be, set up and operating out of this area if need be.
“The intent of this as a mobile command is you come in here and you do your paperwork, you function from here, you keep track of things,” he added.
“You’re going to have your individuals who are right at the actual site, and this is going to be in close proximity, running the scene.”
The rear of the unit features a ramp while the top of the command unit has a crow’s nest to provide a vantage point to oversee scenes, whether they be fires, accidents, etc.
“When you’re commanding a site, an emergency area, or a ‘hot zone,’ sometimes you can’t work in the hot zone so you’re standing back viewing it,” noted Chief Armstrong.
Chief of Operations and Training Frank Sheppard said the command unit also gives firefighters a place to go during prolonged fire events.
“It’s a huge asset,” he enthused. “It’s designed as a command function, but over and above that, with the air conditioning option and the heaters, it gives us the ability to meet some health and safety compliance criteria, as well.
“Section 21 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act insists that you have some ability to recover people if they’re exposed to heat and cold for any length of time, and this will fit very well with that,” Sheppard noted.
As well, the command unit already has been used this spring in exercises out at the fire department’s training facility at the Fort Frances Airport.
“It’s working out really well,” Sheppard said. “A couple of the real rainy days, we were doing some fire scene assessment courses here and it was a huge advantage.
“We were able to split the groups to a point where we able to do instructional work inside of it with groups of eight people at a time, sheltering them and keeping them warm, and able to perform those functions that we couldn’t in the past.”
Chief Armstrong said the fire department hopes to add more equipment to the command unit in the future, as the town budget allows.
“A lot of it is going to be based around emergencies,” he remarked. “We’re looking at hazardous materials, for example.
“We’re looking at maybe housing things like class ‘A’ encapsulated suits for going into ‘hot zones’ and that sort of thing.
“And that’s just some of the ideas we’ve got, some of things it can be utilized for,” he added.
“We can put down the ramp [on the rear of the command unit] and load it up with vehicles—four-wheelers—if you’re going out on a search-and-rescue,” Chief Armstrong continued.
“It’s kind of unlimited.”
Sheppard added the ramp could be used with carts to load and unload supplies and equipment on- and off-site in the event of a disaster or environmental spill, for example.
There’s also slide rails along the interior walls of the command unit, to which could be attached beds, couches, and other features to better accommodate users who have to stay their for a long period of time, he noted.
Chief Armstrong stressed the mobile command unit, which the fire department received in March, has been a long time coming.
“I’ve been back here now for four years, and since I’ve been back, we’ve been trying to work toward something like this,” he said, adding the concept for it actually preceded his time here.
The town’s former mobile command unit, which was a van, dated back to 1975 and needed to be replaced. It had sat at the Fort Frances Power Corp. yard in the north end of town for the past four years.
It was auctioned off last fall.
“It wasn’t mechanically sound,” Chief Armstrong noted. “We weren’t able to get it on the road—that was the biggest issue.”
Unlike the old model, the new mobile command unit is towed behind another vehicle.
Chief Armstrong said many fire departments are switching to using the towed kind because they’re less expensive, and fire departments always have a vehicle ready and able to tow them (he entire unit is made of aluminum, so it’s very lightweight and there’s no licensing issues for drivers).
“The idea is you load it and have it ready,” Chief Armstrong explained. “It’s utilized regularly for different functions, but you don’t have to have frontline servicing.
“For cost-efficiency and being functional, this is ideal. We’re really pleased with it.
“The old bus served a purpose, but it was pretty limited with what we were capable of doing with it,” Chief Armstrong admitted.
“It served its purpose and for the time, it was the right thing.
“Ultimately, this is more practical, which is what we’re looking for. . . . This is a much better set-up.”
“It will last a lot longer than my career here will,” joked Sheppard.
“I know it’s going to be here for a lot of years, and there’s enough room and enough adaptability that it can be used for multiple purposes,” he added.