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New chief for Inuvik fire department
Health and safety of firefighters tops priority list

Samantha Stokell
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, December 15, 2011

Inuvik's newest fire chief has moved not only himself, but his wife, two foster children and two daughters and a son-in-law to the community.

NNSL photo/graphic

Inuvik's new fire chief, Jim Sawkins, comes with 30 years experience in firefighting in both the Air Force and volunteer departments. He also has a lot of training experience. His two goals with the department are to provide emergency services for the Town of Inuvik and to ensure the health and safety of his firefighters. - Samantha Stokell/NNSL photo

To say he's committed to his new job might be an understatement.

"We were tired of packing up and moving and wanted to be part of a community," said Jim Sawkins, who started work on Oct. 17. "I imagine I'll retire here. I have no plans to move on."

Sawkins chose Inuvik over Sparwood, B.C., a small community in the East Kootenays that also had a volunteer fire department. The choice between the two was an easy decision for Sawkins and his wife as soon as they arrived in Inuvik.

"I used to go for lunch with my uncle (in Ontario) and everyone would wave and know him; it was that kind of small community and I knew I wanted to be a part of it," Sawkins said. "The choice between B.C. and Inuvik, it was from right when we stepped off the plane. Just the way we were greeted. It's homey. It's basically every reason I decided to get out of the military."

Sawkins comes from a unique firefighting background. He spent his first 20 years serving as a firefighter in the Canadian Air Force, gaining training and work experience overseas. In 2000 he switched to civilian fire departments and became chief of the volunteer fire department in Tiny, Ont., for four years before taking on the chief position in Muskoka Lakes, Ont., which had 175 volunteer firefighters in 10 fire stations.

In 2010 Sawkins returned to the Canadian Forces as a civilian instructor, teaching fire service management and incident command to supervisor and management personnel. He wanted back in a volunteer fire department because the volunteers have a passion to be there.

"I try to grab onto departments that need help and these guys are sponges," Sawkins said. "In the first three weeks I met with the officers and firefighter and was very impressed that they were so willing to adapt to change."

Since he started back in October, Sawkins has implemented a number of changes to the department to improve organization, structure and training. He implemented a three-platoon system, which allows for better coverage during emergency situations one team can respond, one can rest at the station and one can stay with their family, all rotating on 12-hour shifts.

The platoon format also allows for better training in smaller groups.

"I don't want any credit," Sawkins said. "I am a resource and a tool to be used and I can bring ideas."

Sawkins also reviewed basic firefighters training and set up a system for on-the-ground training to improve communications during responses to fires. Firefighters will now use a common language when responding and use call signs on the radio to quickly identify who speaks.

Firefighters have four goals during a call: to rescue anyone in a building, to ensure hazard control, property conservation and customer satisfaction. Once the buildings are empty, fires are under control, the structures are secure and the people involved in the fire are secure, then the fire department's job is done.

"Our job is more than putting the wet stuff on the red stuff," Sawkins said. "We want to make sure Mr. and Mrs. Smith are okay. They just watched all their belongings burn up and we want to make sure that they have some place to go."

Other changes include bringing binders full of the national fire code into the department, and ensuring all equipment and training is up to date, certified and has the paperwork to prove it. The new Town of Inuvik interim budget has a $250,000 investment in self-contained breathing apparatus, which fire codes set standards for. The department, which now has 40 members, will be getting 30 new ones, as well as technician training for two to four members so the department can repair and update the apparatus itself.

"We no longer will have to ship out for repairs, unless there's a major deficiency with a breathing apparatus," Sawkins said. "I understand the problem. It's a unique place up here."

Sawkins has also implemented a Rapid Intervention Team, or RIT pack, which has two firefighters designated specifically for rescuing their own from a building if something goes wrong.

After taking a mini holiday in November to attend the wedding of one of his daughters, Sawkins has returned to Inuvik with his family in tow and is looking forward to getting settled in the community.

"I own three sleds and I was thinking, hmmm, six to eight weeks of sledding or six to eight months of sledding? It's everything plus the job," Sawkins said. "We're looking forward to this adventure."

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