Volunteers Glen Cherlet (white top) and Liz Ploeg (dark top) survey the results of the Downie Street Fire.

Volunteers Glen Cherlet (white top) and Liz Ploeg (dark top) survey the results of the Downie Street Fire.

Anatomy of a fire response

Revelstoke fire chief Rob Girard goes over everything it takes to respond to a fire, from the initial call to the final inspection.

By chief Rob Girard, Revelstoke Fire Rescue Services

Every now and then someone will ask me, “What happens when a house fire call comes in for a Revelstoke firefighter?” It is a good question and one I would like to explain.

We have approximately 40 trained and dedicated professional and volunteer firefighters on Revelstoke Fire Rescue Services who are ready to respond day or night. Structure fires, highway rescue, chimney fires, fire alarms, vehicle fires, gas leaks and fuel spills can happen at any time during the day or night — and they do!  Many of our structure fires happen at night or early morning. In fact, 50 per cent happened between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. so far this year. The main reason for this is that people are sleeping, thus increasing the chance that the situation will progress to the point where our assistance is required. All the more reason to ensure home owners have quality, functioning smoke alarms.

This is how a typical structure fire transpires and for this scenario, it is 1:30 am on January 15 and all occupants of the structure are out of the building.

The caller calls 9-1-1 to report the fire and the call is received by Revelstoke Fire Rescue Services. The on-duty firefighter receives that information and decides what type of page should be made. In this case a general page for the whole department is sent out. They then decide what fire engines, including Ladder 6, water tender or rescue truck need to respond to the call, the route they will take and what fire hydrant will be connected.

They put on their turnouts and depart the station, driving with lights and sirens on to the structure fire. This is termed a code 3 emergency response with the goal of first engine to be on scene within eight minutes or less, 80 per cent of the time of receiving the call depending on location and driving conditions (winter conditions can significantly increase these times and completing a initial size up).

During size up, the officer in command is beginning to formulate a preliminary incident action plan (IAP). This action plan sets priorities and will determine what tasks are assigned to firefighters:

1. Rescue

2. Exposure protection

3. Contain fire at point of origin

4. Extinguish

5. Overhaul/salvage

The firefighters — career, volunteers and chief – coming from home receive the fire call in two ways. Firstly by way of a pager and secondly by way of their cell phone via a text and email. Each firefighter has two sets of turnouts, one that is at the fire station and one at home which speeds up our response to fires. At home, they quickly get out of bed and determine where the call is in relation to where they live. This is done one of three ways: they know the street, they can look it up on Google Maps from the test or email, or they can look at the emergency mapping they are issued. They then go to where they store their turnouts and gear up, brush the snow or ice off their vehicle and drive to the structure fire.

Engine 1 usually arrives first, provides a size up of what is happening with the fire and determines if everyone is out of the building or if a rescue is required. They then begin to get the truck ready to pump, deploy hoses and begin a fire attack. The goal is to have additional resources including apparatus and manpower arrive within eight minutes. Again, this depends on call location and driving conditions.

The arriving firefighters quickly report to an area called staging so that they can be checked in and accounted for.  The priority of the first arriving firefighters is to begin an indirect fire attack from the exterior to slow the fire down where possible. As additional firefighters arrive with the second-in engine, the next priority is to supply the first arriving engine with water from the nearest fire hydrant. The first-in engine carries 750 gallons of water that can be depleted in under five minutes so it is critical to make a hydrant connection as soon as possible.

Also arriving with the firefighters will be the fire chief in a command vehicle. At this point, the fire chief assumes command of the fire scene and completes a 360 survey of the structure in order to finalize the IAP for the Fire. Armed with an action plan, the chief directs the firefighters. Every fire is complex in its own way and presents challenges and strategies for safe extinguishment.

Depending on the situation, fire attack may be indirect (from the outside) or direct (from the interior). Direct fire attack is always more risky and must be used with caution. In all situations where there is risk of firefighters encountering a contaminated atmosphere, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is donned. Firefighters may be assigned as an attack team to go into the structure armed with an 1.5″ fire hose, radio, light, and irons (axe and halligan tool) to search and apply water to the seat of the fire. This is termed an interior attack. If this strategy is used, a rapid intervention team must be established within 10 minutes of the first attack team entering the burning structure. This team is equipped with specialized extrication tools and their sole purpose to rescue downed firefighters if required.

The incident ommander would be requesting site support from fire dispatch.  Other agencies need to be responding to assist us are BC Hydro to cut the power to the structure, Fortis BC to address gas if needed, BC Ambulance for rehab or medical for our firefighters or occupants, and RCMP for traffic control. Another agency that gets dispatched shortly into the fire is Emergency Social Services, who are a group of volunteers through Emergency Management BC that come to the aid of the occupants who have been displaced to provide shelter, food and lodging for up to three days.

As no two structure fires are ever the same, firefighters may be assigned to a whole gamut of fire operations.  They would be assigned by the incident commander from staging to duties such as scene lighting, ventilation, ground ladders, exposure lines, turning off gas metres, attack or search teams, salvaging property or overhauling the fire.

Once the fire has been knocked down, overhaul and salvage are complete and the scene is secured, the command is transferred to the fire inspector who then begins a lengthy and in-depth task of investigating and examining the cause of the fire. This can include interviewing and taking statements from witnesses and examination of evidence leading up to, during and after the fire.

All fire engines, Ladder 6 and command vehicles are then released from the scene once investigation begins.  They may refuel and then return to the station to wash and reload hoses, wash and reload SCBA Packs, wash the trucks and launder turnouts so that everything is ready to go for the next emergency call for assistance.

The fire calls that Revelstoke firefighters attend can last as short as an hour or be as long as eight hours. It is exhaustive but yet rewarding work for the individual firefighter. Work in the fire service is very much a team effort and when we work together, it builds our team and makes us better. It is a unique group of individuals that provide this great service for our community, they are part of a firefighter family and as their fire chief, I am truly proud to serve and work with them and each and every fire. They all do a great job in every capacity they fill.