Letter: Recommendations from former firefighter include Township purchase of aerial truck

Township office

An open letter to Brock Township Council:

I have recently become aware that Brock Township is considering the acquisition of an aerial/ladder truck. I also understand that the acquisition of such a truck was recently recommended in a consultant’s report. I have had an opportunity to read that report.

Opinion:

I am expressing my opinion based of having been a member of the Brock Township fire department as an operational fire fighter for approximately twelve years, having had formal risk training with Transport Canada as safety officer and more recently as a consultant dealing with risk management and risk mitigation strategies.

There are many reasons which require fire/rescue activities to be conducted at elevated locations. Typically this involves either the structure roof or very close to the roof.

Ladders:

Traditionally, access to a roof has been effected using ladders. Ladders have limitations and risks. Let’s start at the bottom:

  1. The ladder has to be set at a certain angle (to facilitate stability).
  2. The ladder is subject to the structure of the ground on which it rests (dirt, gravel, slopes) which may result in a rather unstable base.
  3. The lower end of the ladder requires a firefighter to assist in stabilizing the ladder.
  4. The upper end of the ladder is not particularly secure (it can slide laterally and consequently fall over).
  5. Moving the position of the ladder can be rather tricky, requiring a number of firefighters to do it efficiently. Critically, the ladder must rest on something, so it must be against the structure.

Ladders have been used for a long time, but their use entails risks and limitations. The technology now exists to eliminate or mitigate some of those risks and limitations. In other words, a much safer means of accessing those elevations, allowing a greatly expanded range of operational strategies. The aerial/ladder truck enables a very stable ladder, independent of the immediate ground base, with a vastly expanded window of angles at which the ladder can be set and without reliance on “resting” on the building or structure. So for basic traditional firefighting, the aerial is far superior to simple ladders, in both safety and operational firefighting strategies.

Need for Revised Strategies

A few aspects of structures have created a need to re-visit how / why aerial ladder trucks are necessary to mitigate evolving issues.

Roofs:

  1. Modern roof / attic construction has proved to be much less structurally sound than was expected when fire occurs. Trusses cannot be considered as sound as traditional trusses, and can weaken very quickly. Given that comment, during a fire, the structural integrity of a roof must be considered with suspicion. In other words, it could collapse with little warning. Why do firefighters access a roof? Very often there is a need to cut a hole in a roof to allow extremely hot air to ventilate. If that is not possible, then the side of the house might be opened near the roof peak for the same purpose. It can be seen, that with an unstable roof, effecting the ventilation, without touching the roof, would be far safer. This can be done quite effectively and safely with an aerial ladder truck.
  2. Roof surfaces are also changing. Shingles, being coarse, provide a good grip and are easily walked on. Metal roofs, although not new, are being increasing used and are very slippery. That slipperiness is exacerbated when water or snow covered. A firefighter attempting to reach a chimney (due to a chimney fire) is exposed to substantial risk attempting to climb very slippery metal roofs. An aerial truck by-passes that problem completely by allowing firefighters to access the chimney without traversing a metal roof at all.

Solar Panels

Solar panels are presenting a whole new gamut of issues of concern:

  1. Solar panels are being routinely installed on the roofs of structures, whether commercial buildings, residences or barns. The solar panels themselves might use various voltages, but typically are about 600 volts in North America. Once installed, the panels produce power whenever there is light.
  2. The first issue relates to panel maintenance. Panels work most efficiently when they are clean, so work on them may be needed if some contaminants are present. First, of course, the panels need installation by workers. They panels operate for a number of years, deteriorating over time and finally need removal. All of this means an increase of workers on roofs. Medical emergencies will occur, and extrication needed. These rescues will be challenging. Often the panel installations leave very little remaining roof space, and a rescuer cannot simply walk over frangible panels. An aerial enables the rescuer to access the person needing assistance without having cross panels or limited roof edges.
  3. The second issue relates to the panels themselves. The panels are constructed of aluminum, various polymers and various chemical elements. Those elements (tellurium, arsenium, etc) are among the most toxic elements know to man. The panels will also burn. The smoke from those panels must be avoided. However, the panels are also still energized. The fire can be extinguished by using a stream of water at the appropriate angle and pressure. By using an aerial, the firefighter can position the water stream in the appropriate location, at the correct angle and pressure, away from the path of the smoke.
  4. The third issue relates to panel energy. As indicated earlier, the panels produce energy as long as there is light. The energy then flows down wires to where it is eventually connected to the general electrical grid. At that point it can be connected or disconnected. However, disconnecting from the grid does not mean the panels are electrically safe. They are still producing energy. The only way to stop the energy production is to cut off the light. How is that done? The panels need to be tarped over with an opaque material. With an aerial, firefighters can pass over the panels, which might be resting on an unstable roof, and spread some type of opaque material so as to de-energize the solar panels. This would be difficult to accomplish by any other means.

Summary

In summary, we can see the change in the nature of roof structure, the increased use of metal roofing material and the greatly increasing frequency of solar panel installation. These changes have significantly altered the risks traditionally associated with addressing structure fires and rescue from elevated locations. Given these risks, I believe it is incumbent on the municipality of Brock to take action to effect aerial ladder truck availability to the Brock fire / rescue personnel. This is in the interest of the safety of both firefighters and the general population. A solar panel fire must be controlled, the general population cannot be exposed to these toxic chemicals.

I ask council to do the following:

  1. To enter into an agreement with Ramara to provide aerial ladder truck availability to firefighters in the northern part of Brock Township. The time from the Ramara firehall to the closest Brock firehall is 10 minutes.
  2. That an aerial / ladder truck be purchased by the Township, to be stationed at the Sunderland fire hall, to provide aerial ladder truck availability to firefighters in the southern end of Brock Township. Uxbridge is planning to acquire an aerial /ladder truck, but that is a number of years away.
  3. That the Township investigate the types of opaque materials suitable for de-energizing solar panels (whether tarps or an opaque spray) and acquire a supply sufficient to deal with needed deployment.
  4. That the Township budget sufficient funds to train Brock Township firefighters in the use of an aerial truck in all the scenarios outlined above.
  5. That in the purchase of the aerial truck, that the township acquire a truck with no previous use (a new truck) with a warranty, during which the fire department can test to ensure it functions as expected during the warranty period, and so that the department can monitor the trucks performance during use and record the trucks history of performance.
  6. That the Township give consideration to eventually acquiring two ladder trucks, with the intent for one based at both the south end and north end of the Township.
  7. That the township retain the spare pumper in Beaverton, for the time being, so that there is a spare pumper as recommended in the consultants report, and that the acquisition of one, and eventually two, ladder trucks be in addition to the spare pumper currently located in Beaverton.
  8. Very often, the Ministry of Labour cites employers for allowing workers to perform at high elevations without fall arrest gear. The presence of an aerial platform now allows a secure attachment point for fall arrest equipment. Consequently, an additional request is for council to budget sufficient funds for the purchase of fall arrest equipment for firefighter safety when they are operating at high elevations within those defined by the ministry of labour.

I would like to thank Council, in advance, for considering the issues and recommendations being presented.

Hugh Loraine