DC firefighting students test their training in extreme weather workshop

Firefighting doesn’t typically bring to mind snow, sleet and ice. Yet for first responders in Canada, treacherous, freezing conditions are as much a part of the job as smoke and flames. In spite of this, safety concerns and other limitations have made hands-on cold weather training tough to come by for firefighting students.

On January 26 and 27 that all changed for students in Durham College’s (DC) Firefighter Pre-service, Education and Training (PFET) program when they participated in an Environmental Stress Simulation Workshop. Held inside the climatic wind tunnel of the Automotive Centre for Excellence (ACE) at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, the two-day workshop saw students execute a series of drills designed to test their physical and mental capabilities under intense environmental conditions.

With ACE providing simulated weather conditions in a safe, controlled setting, students executed several drills. This included dragging a 110-pound mannequin around an icy chamber; riding a stationary bike through blustering snow; performing hot room victim search-and-rescue procedures in the dark; and battling wind and rain while practising dismounts from a full-size firetruck, extending hose lines and performing forcible entries — all while wearing full personal protective equipment and a self-contained breathing apparatus. Lastly, they performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation in a simulated moving ambulance that took them on a winding, bumpy ride.

Seizing the opportunity to work in a setting unique to their field, students in DC’s Fitness and Health Promotion (FHP) program also got in on the action. FHP students outfitted their PFET peers with state-of-the-art body metrics compression shirts in order to measure their heart rate, breathing rate and breathing volume. The data was then used to determine how their bodies reacted under the adverse conditions.

“Firefighting has tremendous physical demands,” said Michael Williams-Bell, a professor with the FHP program. “Providing students with an understanding of how their body reacts to typical job tasks will enable our firefighting students to make better decisions when responding to an emergency.”

Emerging frost-covered from a sub-zero chamber, PFET student Tyler Austin was surprised by how the cold affected his performance. Even as a seasoned ski patrol officer used to working in frigid temperatures, Austin found the cold-weather drills challenging. “It was interesting to see how much the cold affects our equipment and breathing apparatus,” said Austin. “I realized I had to slow down and use my skip-breathing techniques. Being able to simulate what it will be like out there on a cold winter day was a great way to get hands-on experience that backs up all our theory work.”

That’s exactly the kind of insight PFET instructor Rick Bowler hoped students would gain; in the 16 years he’s been teaching at DC, he’s never seen anything like the Environmental Stress Simulation Workshop.

“Firefighting is a fiercely competitive field, so offering students truly innovative experiences like this demonstrates how committed DC is to helping them gain a real, competitive advantage,” said Bowler. “I always have certain goals in mind for my students’ experience and this has surpassed any of them by far.”

As part of DC’s ongoing commitment to aligning its programs with the needs of students, employers and job market conditions, the School of Justice & Emergency Services and the School of Health & Community Services will now review the workshop and the possibility of making it an ongoing part of the PFET and FHP curricula.