fire dept

Living Close to Death

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I am a volunteer fire fighter. There is nothing quite like going on a call and making a difference in an emergency situation to crystallize some things in life. I get amazing perspective and find that all the little stuff — dishes undone, messy living room, home renovations — regain their place of insignificance in my life and all the big stuff — my loving husband, my sweet cat, my health — comes back into focus in the place of appreciation they belong.

In some ways, I wish I could recommend everyone join a volunteer fire department or other emergency service in order to share in my insights! Of course, this isn’t practical, however, my sister is considering joining her local volunteer FD, which really got me thinking about what is so great about it.

Being an emergency responder forces me to slow down. Fire fighters can’t be in a panic — we aim to be the most level-headed ones on the scene. Although I am not literally slowing down, I am slowing down the processes and the steps I have to take in order to be sure I do them right. I do my best to keep my breathing slow and make sure I have the tools in hand for the job I need to do (or am preparing to do).

Living closer to death makes life more precious. This is a universal truth, I believe, and one safe and helpful way to live closer to death is by helping in emergencies. By facing death, either in helping extricate someone from a smashed vehicle or by dousing flames or even going inside a burning building, my zest for life is renewed! My priorities in life are refocused and I am happier. I think many doctors and nurses may feel the same.

Although some situations we have to deal with are hard, most have happy endings. Often, we are able to save a house by working quickly to contain the flames. In other cases, we lose the house on fire, but are able to save the ones beside it. In MVAs, we help keep the road situation safe by stopping traffic and giving medical aid to the victims. Sometimes, we truly are the difference between life and death when someone is trapped in a smashed car. Even when there is a less-happy ending, we have still made a difference. Without emergency service workers of any kind, our society would be more ruthless, like the middle ages.

Facing death makes you realize that people can’t always be saved. Our time here is limited, so if there is something I want to say to someone, I had better do it now. If there is a grudge I feel tempted to hold, I must drop it now. If I were to go next, how would my loved ones feel? Have I lived my life to the fullest? What am I waiting for?

I think ultimately, being on the fire department has helped me learn to control my thinking. I have to force myself to stay calm, think ahead, think of the safety of those around me, and stay in the moment. There’s no time for mind wandering when you’re responding to an emergency! Perhaps that is the best part of all — being fully in the moment, being alive, and making a difference.

2011 in Review

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Every year, I like to do a summary of how the year went, what was good, what was bad and what I’m looking forward to. So here goes!

The Fire Department

I have been really active on the fire department, particularly in the winter and fall (paddling off-season). I’ve literally lost count of how many calls I’ve been on, but it’s a lot! I’ve been to MVCs, building fires, a great mock-accident at the High School, a few fire alarms and medical assist calls. I spent nine hours on the roof of Extra Foods for a fundraiser, and yes, I can add that to the list of Weird and Unusual Places I Have Peed (that will have to be another post)! I’ve helped out with some fire hall tours — I always have fun with the little people. I’m not a newbie any more; we had eleven new recruits start in fall, so I have actually been giving some advice and help to them, both in the hall and on calls. I’m in that netherland between newbie and experienced firefighter. I’ve gone to lots of training, and I now know enough to be dangerous! Seriously, I have learned a lot, but there is still so much more to know. I started taking the Emergency Medical Responder course, but unfortunately had to drop out. It was a good course, and it covered a lot more than I expected. Even though I only did about a third of it, I’m glad I went — now on medical calls, I have a much better idea of what the EMRs and EMTs are doing, and I can help out more. I’m getting fairly good at a few simple tasks, but I am still challenged on virtually every call, which is why I joined the department in the first place! Never a dull moment — and that’s what’s life’s all about! | Fire Dept posts |

Personal Life

I’ve got to say, my personal life has been great this year. I’ve been surrounded by friends, and even when I was stressed about deadlines and completing the York boat on time (photos here), I still had people around me, notably my friend Michelle’s parents in Calgary, who gave me a place to stay for two weeks, fed me, and were so amazingly generous and kind. My relationship with my husband has been great, and we’ve been connecting better all the time. I enjoy our late-night pillow talk; we just chat about whatever has been on our minds. When I am stressed, I can tell him about it and we figure out something that will help. I am so loved by friends and family, sometimes it just amazes me… I am so full of gratitude and appreciation!

Business Success

Flow North had a great year! After doing the Paddling the Peace River guide for GeoTourism Canada, I was hired to run the York boat project, and then I got to be the Captain of the boat on the big, 18-day expedition. It was fantastic! I couldn’t have asked for a better crew, although at times, looking for a crew stressed me out the most. In the end, it worked out so incredibly well, one could only say I was blessed. I’ve got 5 more best friends than I had before the month of June. Beyond the York boat, I got to run a couple of canoe camps, several canoe parties, expeditions, and had lots of fun at our weekly “Family Canoe Nights” as well. What a *great* summer we had! It didn’t hurt that, as usual, we had the nicest summer weather of the province, and perhaps even in all of Canada! Not much rain, lots of sun!
canoeing on the Chinchaga river

A Few Struggles

That’s not to say it was all sunshine and roses. There were a few struggles in the fall, with some bills from the summer piling up and expenses from the York boat not being paid. Things got a bit slim, but that’s what happens some times when you’re in business for yourself. We have exchanged time freedom for money freedom — we have plenty of the first and less of the second, whereas most people have very little time freedom, but more money to work with. We created a few websites in the fall, which was great. I’m really quite proud of what we did: Northern Express, Fox Haven Golf and Country Club, Patrick Cameron
Even though we have time freedom, I still felt the crunch of not enough a few times. I am still volunteering as the secretary of the Northern Lights Forest Education Society, which is developing new trails and busy with various other activities. I am also a board member of the Mackenzie Frontier Tourist Association, which has taken up a bit of time on web development and other duties (I’m not ready to share that website yet — it still needs a lot of work)! On the other hand, I stood up for myself when the workload was getting too big and said “I can’t keep doing this for free. Normally, I charge for this work.” There is always good in the bad!

The Coming Year

There are lots of changes a-coming, which I won’t go into right now. But my vision for the year includes:

    being more consistent in exercising
    planning our meals better so I feel more organized
    continuing to learn more about fire fighting
    getting a part-time job doing radio work, either dispatching or in air traffic services again (woo hoo!)
    expanding my business and being amazed at my success, yet again!
    doing lots of fun things with my husband and friends!
    being more carefree and playful (and helping my friend publish a book all about play!)

So, most of the time, I am excited and eagerly anticipating the year to come. When I’m not? When I get caught up in the business of life and my to-do list. Nothing new there! Stay tuned for more adventures!

Weekend at the Fire Hall

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As an entrepreneur, my weekends are rarely weekends like they are for Monday-to-Friday office workers. I often work on weekends, and actually, I think I’ve only had one full day off since the last week of October, but that’s beside the point. This weekend, I had a lot of fun and hard work over at the Fire Hall!

Perhaps at this point, I had better add **WARNING: GRAPHIC MATERIAL — NOT FOR SQUEAMISH PEOPLE OR THOSE WITH A WEAK STOMACH!**

I signed up to take an EMR course, and this Fri-Sat-Sun was our first full weekend of training. EMR stands for Emergency Medical Responder, for those who don’t know, and it’s normally about 80 hours of classroom time, with lots of scenarios to practice too. Tuesday evening was our first class, and it went well; after Friday’s class, though, I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed! An EMR friend of mine said that an EMR is more-or-less a “really good first-aider,” but I think he under-played it! We have to learn quite a bit of anatomy and diagnostics — or at least, how to figure out what might be happening to the patient. I’m surprised at some of the examples our instructors are giving us — the things they can figure out, on the scene of an accident or if someone is gravely ill, with very little diagnostic equipment or tools — perhaps just a stethoscope and a blood glucose meter. The rest is done by feel, by looking, by listening and asking questions (if the patient is conscious).

I’ve got to tell you — I enjoy helping people and stretching myself, but this is taking it to a whole new level! If you know me, you know I’m not afraid to try new things, get outside my comfort zone (what comfort zone?!? :)) and “get my hands dirty.” But this is people’s blood! Yikes. We watched a video to learn about anatomy, and the doctor hosting it was just digging around inside the cadaver, to show us this organ or that artery. “Way under here… is the spleen!” It was crazy! She was so comfortable with it, I was just overwhelmed. The blood and body parts were not a problem; it was just overwhelming what we needed to know, and that we might be the ones diagnosing these problems on a scene. Obviously, a doctor at the hospital would make his or her own conclusion too, but we would make our observations, act on them, and pass them on to the docs.

Don’t get me wrong; EMRs are very limited in what we can actually do. We don’t start IVs or give medications (except ASA or oral glucose), but we do insert airway tubes, administer oxygen, and take blood pressures, for example. That’s a lot more than a first aider just feeling for broken bones or doing basic CPR! EMRs work on ambulances and provide basic life support. Sometimes, they work with an EMT or Paramedic, and as such, there are a whole bunch of medical terms we have to know. In most places (cities), they would do a minimum on scene and then transport the person as quickly as possible to an ER (Emergency Room), but out here, we have over 400 km of highway to cover, and as such, transport times can be very long and we might end up doing several reassessments and treatments to keep the person going until we get to the hospital. There are even bone fractures that a patient here might not survive, simply because of the transport time and capability of our hospital. We have an operating room, but there are only some procedures our doctors can do, and they aren’t fancy emerg surgeons! When there’s a procedure they can’t do, the patient must be flown out via medevac to Grande Prairie (about 45 minutes by air, and they can’t do every surgery either) or Edmonton (about 1 and a half hours away). I am learning more about the health care system than I ever thought I’d know.

One crazy thing I’ve heard lately is that the Alberta government is handing the emergency medical care in High Level over to a private company, rather than take care of it themselves. It seems a little weird, since such an arrangement costs more, and has less-integrated and less-professional care. I might be writing a strongly-worded letter about this little bit of strangeness! Why should us northerners have less-professional EMRs and EMTs responding to calls, and they’re using less-modern equipment!

Soon the fire department will be helping out though, by officially being part of a Medical Co-response system that allows us to go to medical calls when the ambulances are busy or if there are multiple patients. That’s why a bunch of us volunteer fire fighters are taking this EMR course, put on especially for us by Alberta Health. We have medic-bags on most of our fire trucks, so we can do quite a bit once we know how!

Suffice it to say, I’m learning lots in this course, feeling a bit overwhelmed, but I think I will enjoy it and I know I will be able to help a LOT more as an EMR than as a first aider. Oh, did I mention, we had to cut class short yesterday due to a call-out to a bad MVA (Motor Vehicle Accident)? Yes, my day was 5 hours of class, 3 hours on the call, and then a workout. But man, I slept awesome! :)

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Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

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I should be in bed sleeping. Or sending important emails, or working on other aspects of this huge project I’m managing, but I just got a flash of insight so clear, I had to blog it.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Because they expect it to happen.

Watching a mere five minutes of the news will convince you that the world is full of terrible people, all your neighbours are criminals, war is breaking out everywhere, all policemen are corrupt, and Mother Nature is punishing us with natural disasters. And we are all pretty sure we know why — we deserve it.

Here’s an example of how the news has affected a lady I know. The evening news was filled with serious reports about forest fires raging through Slave Lake, a medium-sized town in Northern Alberta. There was a strong wind pushing the fire, causing it to spread faster than they could put it out, at least initially. The whole town, around ten thousand people, were evacuated and a whole neighbourhood, about a third of the town, burned down — a serious situation, even a tragedy. The Premier, being interviewed for the news, looked like he might cry.

One of the first comments I heard this particular lady make was “oh, there will be looting! With all those homes empty, there will be LOOTING!”

What?!? The town is empty! The only people there are fire fighters, and even if there were others around, that is the absolute LAST thing that would happen. I know this town, and it just would not happen. But years of living in a big city, listening to the radio news every hour and watching TV news throughout the day has completey skewed this woman’s view of the world, and also her expectations.

She expects the worse. Wherever she goes, whatever is going on around her, she sees crime, tragedy, illness, and other newsworthy stuff. I’m afraid to say that this is what she will attract into her life, because the Law of Attraction is ALWAYS at work.

You ever heard of the lawyer’s house that gets broken into repeatedly? The woman who continually has car trouble because she is always worried about her car? That man who gets ripped off because he’s always trying to cheat the other guy?

We each get what we THINK about most, especially if there is strong emotion involved, and what we EXPECT. It’s sometimes also what we WANT, but sometimes we get the opposite of what we want because the thinking and expecting are so strong.

Except for today, I have not watched the news for weeks. It’s a good thing, because I am working on focusing only on positive things, and I gotta tell ya, I get courteous drivers around me, holes in the traffic, mostly green lights (but red lights let me check my map or change my music), and I believe it happens because I know it’s possible. It is not only possible, it’s virtually* guaranteed when I focus on good things, and look for the best in people and situations around me. I have started expecting to have days that go smoothly.

Sometimes it’s hard. With the fires in Slave Lake, all I can think of is that this is a chance for our fire fighters and emergency co-ordinators to shine. And shining they are.

* only “virtually” because I’m sill practicing!

I’d love to hear your comments on this!

This Blur Called April

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Wow, I can’t believe it’s been about month since I posted last! What a month it has been!

Fire Conference. I got to go to the fire conference in Peace River! It was a great time, although a lot of work and I’ve never worn BA (breathing aparatus) for that many days in a row. It’s heavy! But when I take it off, I feel so light, it’s wonderful. We got to meet lots of neat people, from other volunteer fire departments across Alberta, as well as some professional fire fighters. It’s great comparing departments and telling stories! At the various training sessions, we learned some new techniques and methods for escaping buildings in a hurry (see photo below) and how to get through a mess of wires. In fact, we learned too much to really go into here! We also helped run the phase 1 flashover chamber, where fire fighters get to see a fire develop to the flashover stage and practice the nozzle technique to prevent the fire from flashing over. It’s neat, and hot. Our job was to restock the chamber once a group was done, i.e. all the fuel was burned. We’d put the BA on, because it was pretty hot and smoky, shovel all the ash and whatever wood was left out, and then put new wood in the burn barrel, MDF sheets on the sides and roof and the back wall of the burn chamber, so that it could be lighted up for the next group. We worked hard, and several of the groups complimented us on how well we ran the chamber. :) After the conference was over, we had the trainer come up to teach us how to use our brand-new phase 2 flashover trainer, which I also got to be a part of — not as an instructor, just to practice. It was great! And really hot! There was so much fire and heat in there, it was unreal. The first time I went in, I was totally overwhelmed by all the things I had to do, it was a blur. The second, third and fourth times, though, I was able to pay attention better. What an experience!

Bailing out of a window onto a ladder
Phase 1 chamber with Phase 2 behind

The York Boat. I’ve been working a LOT on the York boat expedition. Lately, I’ve been doing the trip planning, food planning, as well as buying supplies and getting costumes made. Well, I’m still looking for a seamstress, but I have a few good leads now to follow. Yes, we’ll be decked out in voyageur-type clothing as part of our attempt to be historically accurate! :)
The York boat has been taking up a lot of my time and efforts, and although it’s generally great, I get a little discouraged at times. I’m going to blog about this more tomorrow. There are still a couple of spots available for the trip, if you’d like to come (or know someone who would like to join in)! :)

The York Boat Factory in Cochrane, Alberta (a pun on York Factory, the Hudson's Bay Company's headquarters for many years)

Check out the rudder on the York Boat! This is one BIG boat!

Check out GeoTourism Canada’s facebook page!

Fire Practice Scenario

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I know some of you just live for new stories about my experiences on the fire department, so I’ve got a good one for ya! :) A week ago at fire practice, our chief and deputy chief came up with an exercise to test our practical abilities, to complement the classroom stuff we’ve been doing. The scenario was a structure fire in a single story building, and we weren’t sure if there was anyone inside. There were 12 of us involved in the scenario, enough for two fire trucks. The first time we ran the scenario, the team I was on was the first on the scene. As such, some of my teammates were tasked with putting on breathing apparatus to be the first people in. This means that as soon as we can get staged and water flowing, they are to go into the building, find the fire and start putting it out, and start looking for any survivors (2 people fight fire, 2 people look for survivors). I was tasked with “tagging the hydrant” which means that my job was to take the hose from the truck and attach it to the hydrant. There are several steps involved, and I’ve been trained on how to do it, but frankly, I’ve only helped with this once on a real fire scene and only done it by myself in training. So this scenario was good practice!

As soon as I had finished at the hydrant and radioed the pump operator that I was ready to flow water, I went to the truck to see what else I could do. We always have some water in the tank on the truck to start fighting the fire, but establishing a reliable water flow/source is very important. Back at the door of the pretend burning building, the “first up” team who had been doing search and rescue was just coming back out, so I was teamed up with another fire fighter to go in and continue the search. This was great — I had only learned about search and rescue a few weeks ago, and had never done it. I did everything I learned to do — followed my teammate and held on to her boot (it is often so smoky that you can’t see your partner so you have to go by touch), I had a tool (like a long crow bar) that I swept the floor with as we crawled, and I kept in verbal contact with my partner. Wouldn’t you know it, we found a casualty — Rescue Randy, a crash test dummy we have for training purposes. Man, that plastic dude is heavy! My partner, who is a petite-but-tough woman, and I started heaving Randy’s body out of the building. We didn’t have far to go, but we got some help from another team member when we got tired. He spelled me off and then I took over from my partner. It was exhausting work, and Randy only weighs 165 lbs. I was dripping in sweat by the time we were done.

What can I say — my team rocked! The chief and deputy chief said I did the hydrant perfectly, and we not only put the fire out, we found the casualty and got him safely out of the building. We had a little room for improvement in communication, but otherwise we had all done a great job! The second scenario was even more fun, and we rocked again.

This time, we were the second fire truck on the scene and our job was to back up the first crews. We were to immediately set up a Rapid Intervention Team (RIT), so that if anyone inside the building gets hurt, lost, or runs out of air, we go in and help them. We always make sure when two people are in the building, two people are outside standing by, just in case. Sure enough, just after we got all our gear out, the first call for help came. The team hauling out the casualty needed help. So, in went the first two people. My friend Colin and I were on the second RIT team, so we became next-up. A couple of minutes later, we got the call that part of the (pretend) building had collapsed on the two people who had been fighting the pretend fire. We quickly grabbed the RIT bag (which has an extra air tank and face mask) and went into the building. Colin totally rocked that situation! He confirmed that they were still with their hose line, so all we had to do was follow the hose to find them — an important detail that made our job much easier. In the scenario, they weren’t far in the building, but in real life, they might be around corners, up or down stairs, and following the hose is the easiest way to locate them. Once we found them, one guy, just to make it more fun, said “both my legs are broken.” Below the knees. Oh, geez. So, Colin coordinated how we would carry him out of the building and we did just that. I’m sure we jostled him a little and he would have been in some pain, but heck, when you’re in a burning building, you gotta be fast! Then, to go back in and help the other fire fighter out, Colin turned to me and said “how’s your oxygen?” Since we weren’t actually on oxygen and I had no idea how much time had elapsed, I just kind of went “uh, I dunno.” So, he grabbed my helmet with one hand on each side, looked me in the face and said “are you okay to go back in?” So I said “Yes!” and we did. We helped the second fire fighter, who could walk on his own, and the scenario was over.

Again, dripping with sweat. Exhausted. Happy! Sore knees (almost all the work in the building was crawling). But happy!

I learned a lot about how a complex situation like that would be managed, and I also really enjoyed actually doing many of the things I’ve been learning about. So there ya go! I was just a chattering away when I got home, and I still get excited when I think about it. :) That’s how I know I’m doing the right thing for me — I’m excited every time I go on a call or go to practice!

Exhausted But Happy!

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I now have a clue how to fight fires in buildings. This wasn’t what I’d planned to do today, but that’s how the day unfolded! (If you’re new to this blog, read about how I joined the volunteer fire department here.)

I started out with three things in my plan for the day: to have lunch with a friend, come home and finish the index for my book, and go for a workout. I had a very nice lunch with my friend and she suggested I come to a meeting at the town office with her, to work on strategies to help people be more physically active in and around town. About three-quarters of the way through the meeting, my pager went off — we were needed for a fire in a small native community about 100 km away. Off I went, grabbing my purse and winter coat and basically running out of the meeting. When I got to the fire hall, I wasn’t even the first person there (unbelievably, since I only had to drive a few blocks). I heard there would be a slight delay as the closer fire department had to be called and consulted with. But those of us who were there hung around and sure enough, we were dispatched to help. Off we go!

me in my firefighter gear
My helmet always seems to be a little crooked.

Now it’s not all thrills and excitement — we had about an hour’s drive to get there (more proof we live in the middle of nowhere). We arrived safely and we got to work setting up hoses, a water supply and whatnot. Before long, another firefighter showed me how to work the hose and I was spraying water on the hot spots. The building was very much toast when we got there, and no one was inside or anything, so we just had to get the fire out enough so that it wouldn’t cause trouble by reigniting. It was such hard work, and handling a charged hose was completely new to me. Sure, I’d used pressure washers, but fire hoses are the ultimate! Anyway, I ran the hose in front of the building and on the side, and on the back… With my right hand, my left hand, both hands. We lugged them all over, which got harder and harder as we went and the lines started to freeze up. They are incredibly heavy when they are full of water, and even heavier when full of ice and all stiff. Crazy.

I don’t want to give the impression that I worked for every single minute. I got to see a couple of friends who live there, which was really nice. When I had the chance, I warmed up and drank some ice-cold water. Are you noticing a theme here? :) It was cold, about -20 C, but I shouldn’t complain. My fellow firefighters tackled a house fire last week when it was -37 with a wind (I was out of town, so I missed that one). Part of me wonders how things can even burn when it’s that cold, but they do! But water doesn’t flow well, hoses become twisted stiff bastards, toes and gloves freeze. Tonight, my pants even froze. They had a coating of ice all over them, and my mitts were so stiff, I could barely use my hands at times. Not because they were cold — the insulating mitts rock! — just because they were so stiff with ice on the outside. Finally, our work was done and we heaved all the frozen hose onto the truck and started the drive back.

As we drove, I was physically tired and a little sore, but mentally, I felt like I could do anything! I can tackle any other challenge, stop procrastinating, be uncomfortable, work hard and just do it, no sweat! What a feeling! It was probably a bit of an endorphin high, but it was great! :) Great payoff for working, uh, more hours than I’d like to count. So I’m going to remember that feeling to motivate myself when I feel less-than-awesome!

I’m exhausted. My muscles worked to their limits at times. I have brand new straight-out-of-the-box biceps. I lugged hose until I was breathing heavy and my legs were weak. So I definitely got that workout I was planning for, just not the way I had planned it! :)

Related blog posts: My First Fire Fighting Calls | Ice Rescue