Out of approximately 13,000 emergency responder volunteers in B.C., the crew at the Fernie Fire Department have been ranked number one in road rescue.
Each year, the Province of British Columbia recognizes Public Safety Lifeline Volunteer Award winners and their significant contributions to emergency and disaster response throughout the province.
Six awards were given to six different departments, who met in the Victoria Parliament Buildings last weekend to be congratulated for their efforts. They were all identified as, “essential to the success of their community organizations.”
The Road Rescue award was the only team award given; the other five were given to commend individuals on their efforts. It is an anomaly that a group as large as the Fernie Fire Department would be chosen, and this has only happened once before, in Golden, B.C.
“It was a nice surprise,” said Director of Fire and Emergency Services, Ted Ruiter, “We’re quite happy about it. It’s good publicity, it lets people know that we do a lot more than what people are aware of.”
Victoria took top spot for Emergency Social Services, Whistler took top spot for Search and Rescue, North Vancouver took top spot for Radio Communications, Abbotsford took first for Provincial Emergency Program (PEP) Air and an individual in Salmon Arm was awarded a Lifetime Achievement.
“I have been fortunate in my role as Minister of State for Emergency Preparedness to have the opportunity to meet countless dedicated volunteers who provide their time, talent and efforts to help perfect strangers through what are often the most challenging days of their lives,” said Naomi Yamamoto. “On behalf of Emergency Management BC and the Province, I would like to extend a special thank you to all volunteers, and the families that support them, for placing the needs of others before your own.”
In an interview with The Free Press, Lieutenant Tom Hopkins of the Fernie Fire Department, affirmed this fact.
“It’s never just us when we’re doing something, it’s also our families that are behind us, supporting us,” said Hopkins. “The community understands also what we do. The way I look at it, it could be our families that are on those roads… Those roads need to be protected and people need to be protected on the roads.”
Hopkins, along with fellow firefighter Steve Kallies, were flown out to Victoria to receive this prestigious award, on behalf of seven career firefighters, including a Director of Fire and Emergency Services, Fire Prevention Officer, Training officer, two Lieutenants, and two Firefighters. The Road Rescue team is supported by 20 auxiliary firefighters, two of whom offer radio room assistance. Hopkins, a career member, and Kallies, an auxiliary volunteer were chosen to go in order to best represent both sides of the fire department crew.
“To be honest I didn’t know about the award until we received it,” said Hopkins, who also commented on how road rescue is very much a team effort. In his nearly 20 years with the department, he has seen the crew become more proficient.
“We all understand (the) jobs that are required (of us), and I think we work well together,” he said. “I think we have a pretty good team. Just a bunch of guys that know exactly what we need to do.”
Approximately 15 per cent of Fernie Fire Department’s annual call volume comes from Road Rescue.
Hopkins sees head-on collisions as the most deadly calls, and more frequent in this area as the Elk Valley is home to very few divided highways.
“With us having the roads that we have, the narrow roads, the wildlife and everything else, the (force of) impact that we can have (in a collision) is actually a lot greater than what most people realize, until you actually see it,” said Hopkins.
“If one vehicle is doing 100 (mph) and the other is doing a 100 (mph), the equipment is almost melting together with the temperature because of the impact,” he added. “Because now all of a sudden you’re doing 200 mph… The force doubles. This is why head on collisions are the most impactful.”
Hopkins believes communication and knowledge are the most crucial attributes of a successful road rescue crew; knowing what needs to be done, how to do it, and most importantly how to do it safely, in a proper sequence.
The Fernie Fire Department is certified to respond outside of its area if necessary. Although their area of coverage has changed of the years, it currently rests between Elko, to Olsen’s crossing just before Sparwood.
Asked if emergency responders get enough credit, Hopkins responded by saying, it’s not about the fame.
“The recognition is great, don’t get me wrong, but I genuinely think the guys didn’t know about this award, and they don’t really do it for the award,” said Hopkins. “I think everyone is grateful that they received what they did, but I don’t think they’d stop what they do otherwise.”