NWT fire season 2015: Communication, safety and workforce upgrades underway

NWT fire season 2015: Communication, safety  and workforce upgrades underway
Last year’s massive fire season in the NWT prompted a review and a number of systemic changes to communication, human resources and safety protocols moving forward.Kelly Pennycook - Environment and Natural Resources.

With last year’s record-breaking wildfire season and forecasts for another hot, dry summer in the NWT, the territorial government is looking back at what it can do better this fire season and in the future.

The department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) released its report on the 2014 fire season last week, put together after 24 open houses in communities across the forested part of the territory and consultations with community and Aboriginal governments.

It’s the first time the department has chosen to conduct such a thorough review of its fire season, and is indicative of the “extraordinary” events of 2014. Though the NWT should experience close to 245 fires per year, supported by an annual budget of $7.5 million, severe drought conditions in 2014 made that level of support a drop in the bucket with a total of 385 fires, costing $56.1 million and impacting 3.4 million hectares of forest.

Of the 93 operations to protect private property last summer, including cabins and wilderness lodges, two were considered “significant losses.”

Though the overall consensus was that ENR responded effectively to the challenges of 2014, which saw no serious injuries or fatalities to firefighters, residents or visitors, the review did find areas with room for improvement.

The report lists a number of priority areas to address moving forward this year, with a focus on better communication with the public, improved safety protocols and more supports for its firefighters.

Public engagement

The report notes a clear need for the department to do more to ensure “organized and proactive” communication with the public, media and stakeholders throughout the fire season, with specific focus put on GNWT fire management policy, operations, practices and limitations.

Special note is made of the need to encourage more communities and property owners to FireSmart their values at risk.

“There is a public expectation ENR will be able to protect all property, at all times, which simply isn’t possible in an extreme fire season,” according to the report.

ENR now plans to assign a single departmental spokesperson on fire-related issues, who will provide the media with weekly and/or daily updates, as needed, and daily updated fire maps will also be available online.

The department also plans to make post-season reviews an annual event, and to “aggressively promote” the FireSmart program across the NWT, through open houses, informational sessions and media campaigns.

More support for firefighters

The length of last year’s fire season taxed crews on the ground and led to a recent review of the way crews are deployed and what more needs to be done to support human resources.

“It is often said that a forest fire may be fought from the air, but is actually extinguished on the ground. This ‘on the ground’ work is undertaken by people; people that are often far away from homes and families, and are typically working in very difficult conditions,” the report states. “It is with this in mind that the department’s review looked at the area of Human Resources. Inputs received from all engagement activities pointed to ENR increasing its support of the people involved in this important program.”

To start, emergency firefighters (EFFs) will be getting a pay raise for the 2015 fire season to encourage recruitment. ENR is proposing to increase EFF pay rates to the same rate as GNWT casual positions.

As of 2016, ENR will also be transitioning to a different crew structure. Currently, the department has 28 five-person Type 1 wildfire crews. That will be changed to 36 four-person crews.

The department is also investigating the pros and cons of using contract crews as opposed to GNWT-staffed crews to fight fires, with recommendations to be put in place by September 2015.

And prior to the 2015 season starting, the department will be developing and maintaining a list of all trained GNWT personnel who can be drawn upon in times of need when ENR resources are already stretched to their max.

There will likely be new positions hired, as well, including three fire technicians, two seasonal warehouse staff, and a communications and public education specialist.

Safety upgrades

Though there were no serious injuries or deaths during the 2014 season, the review found that ENR needs to create a “systematic and comprehensive process for managing safety risks and modernize safety practices,” especially considering the stress and fatigue experienced by employees last year while on long-term deployments.

“While no actual injuries resulted, there is concern about the type of analysis done afterwards, what was learned and how incident reports (and the lessons learned) are managed and communicated internally in ENR and to relevant outside agencies,” the report states.

Some upgrades will be done in time for the 2015 fire season, including incident reports and risk analysis of incidents and communication protocols.

Other elements will be finalized through expert assistance over the course of the summer, with plans to have a completed Safety Management System in place by April 2017.

The full report can be found online at http://www.enr.gov.nt.ca/

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