July 21st, 2018

Newsmaker of the year: First responders

By Peggy Revell and Tim Kalinowski on December 30, 2017.

NEWS FILE PHOTO Firetrucks and firefighters wait on the Trans-Canada Highway for the procession honouring James Hargrave to begin. Hargrave, a volunteer firefighter from Walsh died in the line of duty on Oct. 17 helping fight the grassfires that ravaged southeast Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Medicine Hat News

With deadly grass fires, drownings, homicides, opioid deaths, bank robberies and more, 2017 can be characterized as a year of tragedy and heartbreak.

On the frontlines for it all are our firefighters, police, paramedics, and many others who were pushed to the limits by these serious incidents. It’s why the Medicine Hat News is recognizing the region’s first responders as the Newsmakers of the Year.

Fiery fury
“2017 was the most challenging year I have ever seen in the Medicine Hat Fire Service, without a doubt,” stated MHFS chief Brian Stauth. “We have had major incidents which have caused us to recall all our staff more times than we ever had previously. In 2017 we did a full recall of our staff three times.”

Extremely dry conditions, major wind events and human error caused several nightmare fire scenarios in 2017.

“Earlier this year we had a number of residential homes on fire in Southridge,” remembered Stauth. “We had a horrendous wind fanning that fire. We had six homes damaged, and some were so greatly damaged they were demolished. And it wasn’t long after that we had an explosion in Crescent Heights. When we got on scene we had three homes on fire due to that explosion. It was extremely difficult for our firefighters.”

“It has been a crazy, busy year,” said Fire Chief Kelly Meyer of Cypress County, which had in excess of 250 calls. “Major grassfires did a lot of devastating damage.”

“We have never seen a fire move as fast as we saw with the Bindloss and Hilda incidents. It didn’t matter how many resources we threw on a fire. With that wind, it would just push those flames and we had to chase them.”

Meyer said the fires of 2017 will always be tragically memorable due to the loss of volunteer firefighter James Hargrave.

“What we do is very dangerous, and everybody on our crews knows the risks,” said Meyer. “That’s true of all emergency services. James Hargrave was a really tragic loss to all of us in the organization. He was a good man and a good person. I know personally for myself, I have three little kids. I make more of an effort every day to give them a kiss and say I love you. You just never know. Although it was James who died, it really could have been any one of us.”

River death
The South Saskatchewan River also challenged local first responders in 2017. In May the region’s emergency services combined forces to attempt to recover the body of a young man who was swept away and drowned while swimming.

The RCMP served as command and control during the incident, co-ordinating with search personnel and comforting the family.

“Unfortunately we have not yet recovered the young man’s body,” said Redcliff RCMP Staff Sgt. Sean Maxwell.

“When you have an incident like this where you cannot locate a body, it’s very tough on our people because that is not how they are built,” said Stauth. “Even if someone’s loved one is lost, they can bring closure to a family. When they can’t do that, it is mentally tough.”

“That was something the team has not had to deal with in the past,” said South East Alberta Search and Rescue team president Paul Carolan, whose boat crews and ground search teams committed their full resources to the search. “A multiday search that really depleted our boat operators and search managers. That was five full days including aerial support and a ground search.”

It was also a record-setting year for SEASAR, Carolan said, with 23 incidents compared to a previous high of 12.

Medicine Hat Police Service
“It’s basically been pedal to the metal most of the year,” said Police Chief Andy McGrogan. The year started with investigations and arrests for a New Year’s Eve homicide. Then there were multiple bank robberies, bomb threats, the growing impact of methamphetamine on the community, and much more.

There were also triumphs, such as putting defibrillators in police vehicles.

“I can think of three incidents for sure where we’ve actually been successful in using the defibrillator and bringing people back,” said McGrogan.

There were heartbreaking moments too, like the death of an 18-year-old girl who was struck by a man driving recklessly in a stolen vehicle.

In October, police faced a murder case possibly linked with a violent extortion case.

“That was a huge file, that I think for the first time, I saw MHPS stretched to its capacity,” said McGrogan. The case required the whole major crimes team, while other units shifted around to continue with other files, patrols and day-to-day duties.

“It was interesting to watch. Our people really stepped it up, and got things done,” he said. An arrest has been made in the extortion case. McGrogan said progress continues to be made on the homicide case and more information will come in 2018.

First responders are also on the front lines for the opioid epidemic.

“I think a lot of people think it’s being blown out of proportion. It’s for sure happening in the Hat, daily (overdoses), sometimes more than once daily,” said Jason Soklofske, local paramedic and board member of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta.

“I don’t think there’s really a safe drug out there,” said Soklofske. “It’s Russian Roulette.”

Years ago, medics had two vials of narcon — which can reverse an overdose — in their kits which they never had to dip into, said Soklofske. Now they can easily go through four to five vials.

This is something that medics with 10, 20, even 30 years of experience have never seen before, said Soklofske.

These calls are also intensive and high risk, said Soklofske, with an opioid like carfentanil able to cause an overdose through ingesting a piece the size of a grain of sand.

“That’s pretty scary,” said Soklofske about the stress first responders face that such a drug could accidentally make its way home to family through clothing or other items.

It was that possibility that led police officers to carrying narcon/naloxone in case they were contaminated, said McGrogan. This quickly turned into officers administering it to save people.

“We had 46 deployments of naloxone since we issued it to all of our police officers in January,” he said. “We’ve saved 44 people. So the first responders and mostly the police, basically brought 44 people back to life. That’s phenomenal when you think about it.”

“People say well, they made their own decisions, but that’s somebody’s kid laying there. That’s somebody’s parent.”

All of this comes with a cost. In 2017, results from Canada’s first national survey on stress injuries for first responders confirmed what was well known: First responders have a higher rate of mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, social anxiety and more.

“These kind of calls can be very difficult. They can end a career, if one call affects and puts you over the edge because of PTSD,” said Soklofske, as there’s been a focus on improving supports for paramedics. “You never know which is going to be the call.”

This year, MHPS hired a psychologist to be on staff to help out, said McGrogan, one of many ways they’re working to ensure officers handle the stresses of the job in a healthy manner.

“First responders, they attend all tragedies, and it has an effect on you,” said McGrogan. “They’re just people out there trying to do their job. Whether it’s a sudden death at a home, a motor vehicle accident that might be quite graphic visually … or just the normal human tragedy of life such as seeing the destructiveness meth can have on people.”

Despite it, first responders rose to the challenge.

“Every time the tones went off all the members were top-notch and on their game. They surpassed all expectations, and they did our communities and organization proud. I can’t say thank you enough to our members,” said Meyer.

“It’s been a tough year, and it has definitely shown the resilience of first responders in our corner of the province,” said Stauth. “And put an exclamation point on the need for all of our different departments and municipalities to problem-solve together. We need the co-operative effort of all of us.”

There’s always jokes and friendly competition between the different first responders, said McGrogan, but they all appreciate what each other does.

“Our first responders, fire, paramedics, police, when things have to get done, they’re working together to get things done.”

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