The Chronicle Herald (Metro)
Mi’kmaq volunteer firefighters build up skills
NORTH SYDNEY — A group of firefighters from across Unama’ki spent the weekend building skills — and relationships — that will keep all their communities safer.
Members of We’koqma’q and Wagmatcook First Nations’ fire departments joined North Sydney volunteer fire chief Lloyd Macintosh and some of his crew for a two-day vehicle extrication training course organized by the Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq.
Macintosh, a teacher for the Nova Scotia Firefighter School, was keen for his department to work with the union to share its experience and expertise.
“I’ve been at this for 37 years and I’m still learning, and this class is basically a recollection of our mistakes, what we’ve done wrong and what we’ve changed so these guys can do it right and do it safely, because an injured rescuer or a dead rescuer is no good to anybody,” he said.
The course normally takes 10 days to complete, but Macintosh condensed the material to cover the basics, including the techniques for removing a vehicle from around someone who has been involved in a crash using equipment such as shears for cutting through the body of a vehicle, sometimes referred to as the Jaws of Life, and spreaders used to widen gaps in the metal or remove doors from their hinges.
We’koqma’q volunteer fire chief John ‘Tiny’ Cremo, who has filled that position for over 25 years, had six young “rookie” firefighters who he said, “have never experienced using the Jaws of Life, have never experienced motor vehicle accidents yet,” attend the weekend training.
Cremo said his community invested in hydraulic extrication equipment 40 years ago. Prior to that, when there was a car accident in his community, which is located 40 kilometres from Baddeck and 50 kilometres from Port Hawkesbury, there was a 30 to 45-minute wait for crews from those communities, with their equipment, to arrive on the scene. The We’koqma’q department has been using that same fourdecade-old equipment since.
“It’s old but it’s reliable and dependable,” he said, adding the training session was a good opportunity to try out some of the newer, electric equipment owned by the North Sydney department.
“It’s the funding that’s the problem our way, you know. Before COVID, we got a new firehall and were just about going into action with some fundraising but then that had to stop. It’s a hard thing to fundraise, we’ve got a small area, so it takes longer,” he said.
Fire services in First Nations communities are managed by the band councils and receive funding from Indigenous Services Canada based on the number of buildings in the community and the remoteness of the community. Cremo said his department, with around 40 members that cover just over 300 homes and other buildings, gets $20,000 a year from the federal government to cover all its costs.
Most of the training involved hands-on learning, including a full day of crash simulations at Northside Auto Salvage Ltd’s junk yard, using varied pieces of equipment to cut open old cars and learning skills Anthony Pierro, chief of Wagmatcook’s volunteer fire department, is happy to see his firefighters acquire.
His station purchased a hydraulic spreader a few years ago, but only got a 2-hour “crash course” on how to work the equipment. His department hasn’t yet used it, and still hasn’t been able to afford a cutter.
“Hopefully with this training here his weekend though, we’ll be able to be active with it,” he said.
Pierro has been the chief for almost 20 years and is planning to retire soon. He’s been working to grow his crew of volunteer firefighters and now has more than 40 members, many of them under 30 and enthusiastic to learn new skills.
The weekend training was put on by the Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq and organized by Jennifer Jesty, the organization’s emergency management co-ordinator. Jesty was a firefighter with the North Sydney department herself for six years before leaving to pursue a career as a paramedic and was the first Indigenous woman to become a member of the Nova Scotia Firefighters Association.
To her, the training is important to help First Nations communities network with, and gain knowledge from, other volunteer fire departments around the island to better meet the need of their communities.
Jesty and Macintosh are hoping to hold another vehicle extrication training session for First Nations fire departments before the end of the summer.