Shock troops
Disaster debriefing considered an investment

by Jennifer Pritchett
Northern News Services

NNSL (Apr 07/97) - A Pangnirtung firefighter says the recent training he received in Yellowknife would have helped during the school fire in his community last month.

"Dealing with people in stressful situations has been my weakness for a very long time," said Sakiasie Sowdlooapik, a 17-year firefighter.

"Now I can recognize the signs of stress better. We could really use this training in Nunavut."

Sowdlooapik is one of 20 firefighters from 16 communities who received training in Yellowknife recently on critical incident stress debriefing, or responding to the needs of emergency personnel who suffer from event stress.

Their training comes at a time when the number of serious fires are up in the NWT so far this year.

Territorial fire marshal Don Gillis says the number of high-impact fires has increased this year, but the number of calls that fire departments have responded to has decreased.

From 1994, the number of fires has dropped from 211 to 121 in 1995, and 117 in 1996.

Though many fires are small and cause little damage, almost every part of the NWT has been hit by serious fires in recent months.

Fort McPherson lost its school a year ago and then lost a portable classroom a few weeks ago -- both to arson. Fort Smith watched a historic hotel burn to the ground earlier this year and Fort Resolution's fire hall was destroyed just last month.

And on March 9, Pangnirtung's school went up in flames.

This latest training initiative is part of a three-year program organized by Emergency Measures Services. In its last year, the $800,000 program has provided increased training for firefighters across the North.

Stress debriefing training is one of several areas in which firefighters are starting to receive more instruction.

As part of stress debriefing training, firefighters watch a video of a plane crash and then get in groups to discuss what they saw.

Wha Ti's Tom Matus says the exercise is crucial to firefighters because it helps them deal with the stress of being in a disaster-type situation and being able to live with what was seen after it's all over.

"At least it gives you a sense of being able to keep your head in an emergency situation," he said. "And afterward, you can think about what happened and you will still feel normal."

Sowdlooapik agreed that the training is invaluable as an investment in decreasing the number of fires in the NWT.

"We'll have similar disasters in the future and you never know when it's going to happen and you need this training," he said.

Gillis said that firefighter training is an ongoing issue for fire services.

"We've trained hundreds of firefighters across the North in 62 different departments," he said.

"We are doing the best we can with the resources we have. The biggest thing to overcome is involving firefighters at the municipal level. We still have a way to go."

Mike Lowing, secretary-treasurer of the NWT Fire Chiefs Association and deputy chief in Yellowknife, said that training is difficult to organizer in the remote communities, particularly in the Eastern Arctic.

Lowing is optimistic, however, about the training that has been going on for the last three years.

"This dramatic increase in firefighter training has answered what the fire chiefs have been asking for years," he said.

"A better training service, we believe, will lower the incidence of fire."