Ottawa Fire launches new training curriculum

There's a brief sense of unease that sets in as smoke fills the shipping container, completely clouding my vision.

In the respirator I sound like Darth Vader and it makes breathing more laborious, but it keeps the smoke out of my lungs.

As a handful reporters kneel along the sides of a shipping container at Ottawa Fire's training facility off Moodie Drive, an experienced firefighter explains how he's going to fuel the fire so it crawls up the walls and eventually the ceiling.

This is a live fire demonstration and surprisingly, it's more exhilarating than frightening.

"It is a classroom. We are aiming to warn to inform not burn to learn," said Tim Stuempel, a senior Ottawa Firefighter and my buddy for the day.

The live fire demonstration lasts about 25 minutes. It starts off slow with a firefighter igniting a pile of wood in a far corner of the shipping container. By the end the thick smoke is everywhere, participants are sweating profusely and the flames are creating beautiful waves along the steel ceiling.

"In that scenario it is a steel can. We don't have carpets and furniture to worry about. Where as in a burning home or building, we have to worry about all of those things. Here we don't," said Stuempel.

This experience is the last step in a day of firefighter training for members of the media that includes a number of experiments illustrating how fire can be created, manipulated and mitigated to protect crews, structures and members of the public. Everything today stems from Ottawa Fire's new firefighter training curriculum it hopes other fire departments across Canada and the world will pick up.

"A flashover, the total involvement of a room, used to be about 17 minutes, on average," said Peter McBride, a Division Chief for Safety and Innovation with Ottawa Fire. "That now happens on average between 4 and 4.5 minutes, sometimes less."

The influx of materials like plastic, and memory foam, coupled with the way buildings are constructed today, have changed the ways fires must be fought. The materials ignite faster than older materials, like wood, and give firefighters less time to prepare a plan of attack.

"It's highly reactive to air and very easily ignited. So as we make entry and allow air into that fire, it very quickly will change to injure or kill us," said McBride.

The new curriculum focuses on fire dynamics and teaching crews how fire behaves when in contact with these new materials. It also places a big emphasis on ways to protect firefighters from potentially deadly contaminants after exiting a fire scene.

One example of a change is that firefighters must now remove their clothes and take a bath as soon as possible. They must also thoroughly wipe down their face, hands and neck with a wet cloth and take time to sit down and relax in a specially designed cooling chair.

Take a tour of the Moodie Drive facility giving Ottawa firefighters state-of-the-art training.