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Channel-Port aux Basques Volunteer Fire Department ponders storm protocols at infamous high winds area

Port aux Basques Fire Chief Jerry Musseau (left) with Assistant Fire Chief Todd Strickland, who also serves as deputy mayor with Port aux Basques town council.
Port aux Basques Fire Chief Jerry Musseau (left) with Assistant Fire Chief Todd Strickland, who also serves as deputy mayor with Port aux Basques town council. - John René Roy Photo

Working the Wreckhouse

CHANNEL-PORT AUX BASQUES, N.L. —

The Channel-Port aux Basques Volunteer Fire Department is looking at implementing guidelines for dealing with emergencies that occur in the Wreckhouse area.

The department lacks an official policy for responding to accidents in the region, which regularly experiences hurricane force winds, particularly during the winter months.

“We don’t have a set protocol. It’s really been a judgment call,” Deputy Mayor Todd Strickland informed Port aux Basques town council during their Feb. 19 meeting. Strickland is also the fire department’s assistant fire chief.

Strickland told council that drivers who ignore the posted wind warnings for the Wreckhouse put more than their own lives and vehicles in danger when first responders are called.

“There have been times that we’ve been called, and we’ve been up there and it’s not safe for us to even be there,” he said.

Whether or not conditions are safe enough for firefighters to respond to an emergency at the Wreckhouse is currently the decision of the officer in charge, usually Fire Chief Jerry Musseau. Even just properly assessing the risk to firefighters before rendering a decision can be tricky since the reports from trusted sources like the Weather Network or Environment Canada can vary significantly.

“What forecast do you go by?” asked Strickland. “We have no weather station in the fire hall that says winds right now in Port aux Basques are blowing at 130.”

Councillor Jim Lane voiced strong support for the drafting of an official protocol.

“Obviously if a truck driver comes through at 160 (km/h winds), he’s making a dangerous situation,” Lane said. “We should not be obligated to see that one of our people gets injured trying to save him.”

Despite the sometimes severe weather conditions, Strickland says he cannot recall a single instance during his 17 years as a volunteer firefighter when the department hasn’t responded to an emergency call at the Wreckhouse. But he pointed out that a protocol that prohibits a response because of the weather could have dire consequences.

“If we get a call for Wreckhouse and we don’t go because of the weather, because of the conditions and whatever, and somebody perishes or whatever, we might have made a difference if we were there,” he said.

“The other side of the coin is if you do go and two of your firefighters get killed,” countered Lane. “You know that firemen, the very first thing they teach you, is save yourself so that you can save others.”

“Firefighters are a different breed,” offered Strickland. “We don’t usually question if we’re going. It’s usually when are we going and how are we getting there.”

Better communication among emergency responders and private contractors was also identified as needing improvement when it comes to developing a protocol.

A couple of weeks earlier, the fire department responded to a report of a tractor trailer that had flipped over in the Wreckhouse area. The call came in at 12:30 a.m., and uncertain as to whether or not the driver was trapped or in need of assistance, the firefighters suited up and went out into the storm. Upon arrival they discovered that the accident had happened hours earlier and that no one, including the driver, was on scene anymore.

“If there was tape placed on this earlier by the towing company that attended to this truck we most likely would have not got the call,” said Strickland.

Before leaving, the department placed caution tape around the tractor trailer so that passersby would know the site had been secured and would not feel compelled to call emergency services.

“That night in question, I was on that call and it was nicer in Wreckhouse than it was in Port aux Basques. That’s for winds and that for snow squalls,” said Strickland. “It was worse in Port aux Basques. So again, it’s a judgment call, but it’s not easy.”

Strickland invited council to assist in drafting the protocol, and also asked them for support if and when it is implemented.

“The safety of our volunteers is our number one priority,” said Mayor John Spencer.

Then there are liability issues to consider should the department choose not to respond to a Wreckhouse emergency. Coun. Melvin Keeping wondered whether or not liability concerns were already addressed similar to the provincial initiative program surrounding hazmat response.

Strickland said he was uncertain as to what extent the department was actually covered, and later via email stated that the department would seek to fully explore and clarify any liability issues before deciding what new protocols, if any, to implement for Wreckhouse emergency situations during extremely hazardous weather conditions.

“If the decision is made to not respond, I would think this will be no easy decision and the decision would be made with everyone’s best interest in mind. It’s hard for anyone to respond to a call if we are putting the lives of ourselves or other firefighters under our command in jeopardy,” Strickland wrote. “We have to keep in mind that we, the fire department, may risk a lot to save a lot but we risk little to save little, and at the end of the day we want to make sure that all of our firefighters go home after the call.”

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