By Sharon Weatherall
If a fire truck had been ready and able to carry water to the scene, disaster may have been averted in a Feb. 13 house fire that claimed four lives in Mishkeegogamang First Nation.
“There is a possibility that, if the truck had been winterized lives could have been saved,” says Certified Fire Protection Specialist Lawrence Laviolette. “According to the police, response time for the vehicle was within five minutes.”
Because the band’s 1000-litre truck is not stored in a heated garage it could not be left filled with water. Part of the truck’s pump and intake line were frozen, resulting in insufficient water being available to suppress the fire in this Ojibway community – also known as New Osnaburgh – located 320 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.
“A thousand litres of water could have been the amount needed to save those people,” said Laviolette, who acts as an advisor for First Nations seeking assistance on fire safety issues.
“My heart goes out to the community and family, we must work towards stopping these tragedies from happening.”
The Mishkeegogamang fire truck was one of 21 funded by Aboriginal Affairs Northern Development Canada (AANDC – formerly INAC) and purchased by Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation (OFNTSC) in 2009/2010. In 2010, 15 Pierce commercial pumpers were purchased from a Florida-based firm, Darch Fire Inc., and delivered to First Nation communities, some of which were asked by OFNTSC to “sign off” on them. Darch — a dealer for Pierce Manufacturing Inc., an Oshkosh Corporation — has offices across the USA and one in Ayr, Ontario.
Laviolette says the Mishkeegogamang fire truck is “below standards” and does not meet the requirements for Northern climates. The majority of trucks purchased in 2010 were not equipped with winterized packages and were also missing equipment such as an enclosed pump compartment with a properly-designed heating system to keep them on standby in cold weather.
According to Laviolette OFNTSC did not ensure before delivery that designated communities had a heated fire hall or building to store the new trucks with proper heating. He is also concerned with the lack of training First Nations received regarding operation of the trucks.
In 2010 one First Nation community was handed a DVD when its truck was dropped off and the Darch representative left without a follow-up. Laviolette was called by that community to give firefighters some training. There were other communities that received trucks which didn’t even have a fire department or firefighters.
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901 Manual Chapter 4 – General Requirements (4.3.2) stipulates “After acceptance of the fire apparatus, the purchaser shall be responsible for ongoing training of personnel to develop and maintain proficiency regarding the proper and safe use of the apparatus and the associated equipment.”
Laviolette, who has been in the fire service business for 40 years, said all of the southern trucks delivered to the north are improperly designed for cold weather climates.
Inquiries to the media department at First Nations Technical Services Corporation were relayed to the truck funder, Aboriginal Affairs Canada.
“The OFNTSC works with Tribal Councils and First Nations to determine their firefighting needs and brings recommendations to AANDC Ontario Region,” replied Susan Bertrand, Manager, AANDC Executive Services & Communications. “Acting on those recommendations, AANDC Ontario Region provides funding to the OFNTSC which then procures and purchases the equipment and services on the First Nations’ behalf.”
According to Bertrand there were storage criteria for communities receiving the trucks.
“It is important to note that AANDC required that First Nations chosen to receive the fire trucks confirm that each location had heated storage facilities.”
Kichenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation is a Northern community that received one of the trucks in question but, due to lack of funding, cannot use it during winter months.
“The truck is not fully equipped or modified for our region. It’s for a southern community,” says Chief Donny Morris. “Yesterday it was minus-51 here. For that reason we are not even taking it out; it remains parked through the winter.
“We have no other fire trucks in the community other than regular water trucks with a pump on them to try and soak a house on fire but they cannot spray. There is no fire department here, just a fire prevention officer who trains volunteers.”
Ron Kyle, a mainstream professional firefighter for over 31 years is familiar with the issues facing First Nation communities that received trucks.
“No training has been done in the operation of these trucks,” says Kyle, who has served on apparatus purchasing and supply committees for several years for the 5th largest fire department in North America and currently holds the rank of operations Captain. “Most do not have a winter package, and many other items that would make this vehicle ready to fight fires. These vehicles are very light duty and not fully equipped, as delivered, to work in this type of environment. Some communities do not have a suitable heated facility to house them.
“Three of them were just dumped off with no instruction despite a glowing website saying how there was a close working relationship during initial assessments and four days of training for each community,” said Kyle. “One community had to spend close to $20,000 to properly equip their truck to fight fires. I wonder if they were even Transport Canada approved as there are no mud flaps or other items that are required for all other vehicles imported into Canada.”
Kyle also operates a company that provides Third World countries with providing fire trucks, ambulances, firefighting equipment and supplies, training and medical and education equipment and supplies and has over 30 years experience in heavy transportation vehicles.
“I see this as a waste of millions of tax payer dollars with no accountability. There are lots of good used heavy-duty, custom-made fire trucks available for a fraction of the cost of these new trucks that are broken down or not equipped for the Northern climate.”
Beausoleil First Nation received one of the trucks lacking certain equipment and accessories to make it serviceable in winter. The fire department, Chief and Council paid $15,000 for upgrades and another $15,000 to add all the equipment required to certify the truck properly to basic NFPA and Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (ULC) standards.
“When BFN Fire Department asked for money to upgrade the truck, Tech Services(OFNTSC) said the band had to use its own money,” says Fire Chief Allan Manitowabi. “We received a letter saying the value of the truck was $210,000.
“We were fortunate to have had the funds to fix our truck. We had the support of our band to do the upgrades. Some First Nations took the trucks out of need. I worry about, and feel sorry for other communities that are having problems with trucks not built to meet the needs of the community and cannot afford to fix them.”
When Manitowabi contacted Darch to order upgrades for the Beausoleil FN truck he was told the trucks were purchased “as is”. Even with additional equipment and parts the Christian Island fire truck is now classified as a pumper/rescue vehicle, and de-classified from a #1 pumper.
Aboriginal Affairs’ spokesperson Susan Bertrand says health and safety of all Canadians is a priority for her Government.
“That is why we provide considerable funding to First Nations to support operations and maintenance, fire protection infrastructure and fire protection training on reserve, through which First Nations manage fire protection training on reserve to meet the needs of their communities.”