Firefighter and first responder Grant Tyson shows part of the computerized network the regional fire department uses to receive medical call-outs from BC Ambulance.

First response a major role for firefighters

General alarms, including calls from alarm companies, make up around 10% of the overall call volume.

By Sheri Regnier

Times Staff

There’s a heck of a lot more to firefighting these days than bravely stomping the flames.

Last year, local fire crews  responded to more than 1,600 emergency calls, but fire-related events didn’t even make the list’s top three.

Instead, being a first responder (FR) and providing basic life support until the ambulance arrives, was the number one call-out for all six companies in Kootenay Boundary Regional Fire Rescue (KBRFR).

That’s an action that has been trending upward since fire departments teamed up with BC Ambulance in the early 1990s, and one that had crews from Rossland, Warfield, Trail, Montrose, Fruitvale and Genelle called out 932 times in 2014 – 561 from Trail alone.

Regional Fire Chief Terry Martin says every fire department throughout the province who responds to FR calls, saw an increase last year.

“There appear to be more of those types of calls everywhere,” he said. “Overall call volume for KBRFR has been slowly increasing each year for some time, so 2014 was not an unusual year for us.”

And when he says call-outs, it’s not like days past when a phone rang off the hook. In today’s high tech world, first response calls are dispatched from the ambulance service in Kamloops. Detailed information pops up on the computer screen such as the caller’s exact location, which can include GPS coordinates from a cell phone, plus the level of response needed.

The information is flashed on what’s called a “gateway”which sets off an alarm on the computer.

“Things have evolved for sure,” said Grant Tyson, a 16-year regional firefighter and Level 3 first responder. “We do way more calls now than we used to, like rope rescues, high angle calls and river rescue with the new boat.”

While every shift is different, Tyson, who handles the department’s medical portfolio, noted that often first responders are on the scene to support the ABC’s (airway, breathing and circulation protocol) to patients suffering chest pain and shortness of breath.

“On average we respond to three (medical) calls in a 24-hour period,” he explained. “But that’s an average, some days there could be four or five calls, and other days, none.”

Both career and paid on-call  KBRFR firefighters are licensed at the highest level of First Response and are required to re-license every three years. During 10-hour day shifts, 14-hour nights shifts and off-the-clock,the firefighters constantly review and mock practise life savings skills like CPR and defibrillation. Another routine in Tyson’s a four-and-four shift rotation includes administrative tasks that ensure medical supplies are well topped off in all six halls. That’s in addition to dispatching calls to 41 halls in the Kootenay Boundary and Central Kootenay regional districts.

“We look after day-to-day things like purchasing for all six departments, if they need medical supplies or training, it all comes from this office.”

Following first response events, motor vehicles incidents (MVI) landed second, and accounted for about 12 per cent of last year’s events.

“We are usually going to something significant and injuries are involved,” explained Tyson. “These aren’t, for example, calls to Bay Avenue if someone rear ends another car. We are there to provide an extraction, and take measures to ensure the car doesn’t catch fire.

If a vehicle has gone over a bank by more than 20 feet, fire crews employ rope rescue to extricate the person back up to road level. “It’s really evolved over the last 10 years,” he added.

Regional fire rescue covers a vast territory that spans west to  Paulson Bridge on Highway 3, east to the junction of the Castlegar turn-off (Bombi) on Highway 3B, and north from Trail to China Creek.

“We cover a huge area and I don’t think a lot of people are aware of that,” said Tyson. “There are a lot of accidents toward the Paulson Bridge, and it’s a long way especially in the a snowstorm. But this year there hasn’t been as many as usual.”

Rounding out the year’s top three calls are general alarms, which account for about 10 per cent of the overall call volume.

Those include direct calls from alarm companies to the station when smoke is detected in both residential and commercial settings.

“For example, if a fire alarm is activated at the hospital, we don’t know if it was unintentional, burnt toast or something stuck in a dryer,” Tyson noted. “But those calls come directly to us and include a detailed location of where the alarm is.”

While the duties for a firefighting position have changed over time, there is one aspect to the job that has remained the same.

“We don’t see a lot of good things because people don’t call us when things are going well,” said Tyson.

To deal with their own trauma following life-and-death calls, Tyson said the crews support each other post shift, though professional counselling is available through the Employee Assistance Program.

“We mostly defuse amongst ourselves,” said Tyson. “But the help is there if we need it.”

Fourth on the KBRFR’s year end summary was 55 calls to wild fires, followed by 31 to structure fires. “Our call volume for wildland type fires was down, but it was also down throughout the entire region,” said Martin. “We have been very fortunate in this area over the last number of years with not having many larger wildland events.”

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