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Prairie firefighters prepare for battle

SWIFT CURRENT, Sask. – Broken glass and twisted metal are all that remain of the flattened and burned cars that once carried families across Saskatchewan.

Nearby, small concrete vaults and long, narrow pipes sit ready to be connected and buried to make a maze of tunnels.

Only a fire hydrant set into the dirt hints at the purpose of this fenced site near towering steel grain elevators at the edge of Swift Current.

The odd assortment makes up the specialized training and testing facilities for professional and volunteer firefighters in the region.

Tracy Tangen, Swift Current’s deputy fire chief, said the new site will allow professional, volunteer and business crews to learn how to rescue those trapped beneath manholes, inside grain bins or down water wells.

In addition to confined space rescue, vehicle extrications and pumping apparatus testing in a drafting pit can be done. A training tower will one day provide high angle, rope and aerial apparatus training.

Previously, the city department had to attend fire colleges out of the province and train on private property, setting up and tearing down after each session.

Tangen said the new facility increases training opportunities for firefighters and provides peace of mind for the public.

“This facility gives locals confidence in their fire department,” said Tangen. “People see our guys out and it’s good exposure for us.”

Fire chief Bob Rindahl said the fire department will continue to send its crews away for special courses but the new centre gives ample space locally for training.

“To be good or better at what you do, you have to practise and do the skills maintenance,” said Rindahl. “It’s about training, not just the training ground.”

The smaller the department, the fewer local training opportunities there are. Most volunteers in communities like Shaunavon, Sask., are restricted to sessions in town or in nearby cities on weekends, said Shaunavon fire chief Dean McNabb.

His department runs through weekly training to prepare for fire calls, which can take the 20-year member of the force away from his paid work at an implements dealer in town at any time.

McNabb believes the Swift Current training grounds will be an asset for all rescue services in the region.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” he said.

Ken Dobra of Grenfell, Sask., executive director of the Saskatchewan Volunteer Firefighters, said the new facility brings training to one location.

“We have all of the training materials we need right there. Firefighters can be in one area and do a lot of classes,” he said. “It’s a benefit to the volunteer sector to have that facility.”

He said other Saskatchewan cities like Estevan, North Battleford and Melfort are creating similar sites.

“Major centres are putting in training centres and are more than willing to share with smaller communities,” said Dobra.

His group trains volunteers at various sites around the province each year and hosted a conference at the Swift Current site last fall.

“They have to be accountable, they have to have training records,” he said. “That’s really changed from the way things used to be.

“It’s not a matter of being a volunteer department and showing up at a fire,” Dobra said. “We have to make sure our guys are trained and do the right thing, make sure procedures are followed.”

McNabb said the Shaunavon fire department has benefited from the support and expertise of the Swift Current fire department.

“We look to them for their expertise. They treat us as equals,” said McNabb.

McNabb said sharing resources, manpower and equipment is becoming increasingly important for shrinking numbers of rural firefighters and departments.

The Saskatchewan Volunteer Firefighters reported at least 20 fewer departments on its roster this past year.

That’s a reflection of a declining population and an aging one outside the major cities and towns. For Shaunavon, that means the volunteer force is now covering an area of 1,400 sq. miles.

Swift Current’s training grounds, which have cost $100,000 to date, received $10,000 this year from Farm Credit Canada’s Agri Spirit fund.

Duane Ring of FCC in Swift Current said such projects are chosen based on how they will benefit a community.

“We look at giving back to where our employees live and work and where we get our support from,” he said.

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