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Experiencing Minto Fire’s training exercise from a different perspective

A firefigther continues their search in a smoke-filled hallway. (Mike Wilson Photo)

Mike Wilson shadowed Minto firefighters during their July 11 mass search and rescue training

The evening of July 11 was like any other July night in Palmerston – kind of warm, sunny and quiet.

However, things were about to get a bit hectic.

I was standing on the front lawn of Palmerston Public School with Minto Fire assistant chief Callise Loos and training officer Jonathan Brnjas, waiting for Minto Fire’s entire fleet of trucks and firefighters to arrive.

Brnjas got on the radio and “paged” the department to the school for a shooting.

The department does training Thursday nights, with most of the training being either classroom or small-scale exercises. It’s not often that all three departments get together to do a large building search and rescue training exercise.

Within minutes, the crews arrive at the school and begin to set up their incident command post while firefighters get in their gear in preparation of entering the building.

Firefighters get the incident command station set up in front of Palmerston Public School during their July 11 training exercise. (Mike Wilson Photo)

Brnjas, again on the radio, informs the firefighters that OPP have captured the suspect and have deemed the building “safe” to enter.

The first crew of firefighters assemble and get organized, then head into the school.

Their mission was to find the 20 patients in the school and bring them out of the building.

And I was going in with them to see how it’s done.

The first group of firefighters enter Palmerston Public School to begin their search and rescue mission. (Mike Wilson Photo)

Upon entering the building, the crew headed down the first hallway of the school and searched each room for patients (played by children and friends of the department). The scene was dark, eerily quiet except for the sounds of the radio, and cluttered with desks and chairs in the hallway.

After a short time, more firefighters entered the school to search the other hallways and gymnasium.

I decided to follow one crew into the gym, where it was complete darkness. The two firefighters I was shadowing used their head lamps to find their way around the gym, eventually locating one patient underneath the stage where chairs are stored.

Firefighters work at extricating a patient from a confined space underneath the stage in the Palmerston Public School gym during a training exercise on July 11. (Mike Wilson Photo)

Once the patient was removed, I headed into the back hallway where firefighters were met with smoke.

I then overheard on the radio that the suspect had allegedly started a fire in the change rooms of the gym before leaving the scene.

Within a few minutes, the hallway was filled with smoke and in a sudden twist of events, a firefighter was down (this was part of the exercise) and rescuing him was added to the mix.

In a sudden plot twist, firefighters had to rescue one of their own during a training exercise on July 11 at Palmerston Public School. (Mike Wilson Photo)

While one crew was rescuing the firefighter, other crews continued to search for the patients while the hallway continued to fill with smoke.

Within five minutes, finding my way back to the front of the school was difficult but I eventually made it.

Once I exited the school, I headed to the road where I became part of the exercise: it was time for me to pester the incident commander for information about what was going on.

After finally getting my interview, crews began to exit the building with all of the patients accounted for.

This entire exercise, from the time crews were called until they finished, took just over an hour.

After the crews began to clear, I asked Minto Fire Chief Chris Harrow how he thought the exercise went.

“They did a great job. That’s a massive building to search when you’re not quite used to search like that,” he said. “As with any training event, there’s lots that we can learn from.”

Harrow said the crews finished “a lot quicker” than he thought they would.

“They did a great job of finding patients, getting them out and heading back in to continue where they left off [searching].”

Harrow said that the scenario used for the search – a shooting at a school – is something they hopefully never have to deal with, and that the purpose of the exercise is to prepare the firefighters for a large building search and rescue in situations like a shooting or carbon monoxide call.

“If that was a carbon monoxide incident in a school and you have kids all over the place, you’d have to do a large-scale search,” he said. “That would be our responsibility [as firefighters], so we wanted to simulate that.”

“We just wanted to give [the firefighters] an appreciation for the magnitude of searching every little room of the places we have in the community.”

The exercise also taught the incident commanders about allocating resources.

“It’s amazing how quickly you run out of bodies,” said Harrow. “It really gives you an appreciation of what kind of resources it takes to do this type of call.”

Now that these firefighters have experienced a mock scenario like this, hopefully it is something they never have to put into practice.

But if they do, know they are ready.