Wednesday, 14 December 2011 11:38

Study comes at the right time for Southwest Alberta Regional Fire and Rescue Services

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By Jamie Woodford
Southern Alberta
In an effort to provide more effective and efficient emergency services, the Regional Fire and Rescue Services group (RFRS) is conducting a study on regionalization options with a goal to create improved sustainable fire and rescue services while also meeting evolving public needs and expectations.



“We think that we should be organized so that all responses have an element of regionalization to them, and that’s my opinion,” said County of Lethbridge emergency services co-ordinator

Darryl Beaton. “But that’s why we’ve contracted an independent third party to do the study so everybody has the opportunity to voice their own opinion.”

The group, made up of fire chiefs and chief administrative officers from the counties of Lethbridge, Picture Butte, Coalhurst, Nobleford and Barons, was formed in 2007. Fire chiefs meet regularly and report back to their councils on ways to improve emergency services.

The study began in August this year, and recent grassfires were the perfect example of a RFRS response to a regional emergency, said Beaton.

“Every fire department within the County of Lethbridge responded — a tremendous response, and that exactly what we’re talking about: could we have improved that response prior ... in an administrative or operational level as far as training or equipment purchasing or just aligning how fire departments do their day to day business?” he said. “If you can work on those thing behind the scenes before the bells go off, do you do a better job of responding collectively when the bells do go off?”

The RFRS group has not yet rated its performance in the recent fires, but the group has plans to debrief next week.

“Those debriefings might say, ‘If we had an opportunity to practise this, or do that before this regional response had occurred, we may have been better prepared.’ We won’t know those answers until we ask those questions,” he said.

Beaton did comment on the new Alberta Alert System and its apparent success during the wind storm and subsequent grassfire emergency.

“It was well used. Plus just our media updates ... that always helps too. Then on the ground, we’ve got police cars driving through communities advising people to evacuate,” he said. “You kind of hit it with every tool you have.”

He said it wasn’t too difficult to communicate with farmers or rural residents, but having them listen was another story.

“What we have learned — and we’re going to do out best to communicate to the public — that they have to take evacuation notices seriously,” he said. “We understand there’s a lot of people that did not evacuate. Perhaps they felt from their vantage point that their safety was still secure, but a fire of this magnitude, any shift in the wind and the situation changes so quickly. So when the authorities order an evacuation, it’s vital to people’s safety that people comply.”

Compared to past emergencies that required multiple agency response, the grassfires were “fairly large.”

“Any time you have to move people it’s a level above normal emergencies,” he said. “The last really big incident we had was 3M back in 2005. We’ve had large hay storage facilities in the county ... but this one was particularly serious just because the number of residences that were asked to evacuate for their safety.”

Beaton said the recent fires probably won’t change the course of the study, but it will certainly bring other issues to the surface.

“When we do the debriefings and write our notes on lessons learned, and things that we could do differently in the future, you add that to the study and it may just provide example of why working together behind the scenes before the bells go off is a good idea. And now we actually have perhaps some live examples of that,” he said.

“We hope that this will provide us with some good lessons learned in terms of regionalization.”

Since 2007, the group has successfully installed a new regional radio communications system, common fleet replacement schedules and improved emergency response zoning supported by municipal addressing.

The study is expected to be complete by December 2012.


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