What’s going on in there? Fire chief Coutts has answers

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

The ever-growing training facility in the Slave Lake fire hall yard has apparently been drawing some attention and not all of it positive. Chief Jamie Coutts gave The Leader a tour last week, explaining the purpose of each piece of infrastructure and where it came from.

As far as the newest stuff goes, “everything has been donated by oil companies,” he said.

That includes the metal shacks and oilfield vessels. The plan is to set them up, complete with piping, to resemble an actual oilfield battery-type of installation, and then run live-fire training exercises.

“Everything you see here will be on fire,” Coutts said.

The design of the set-up is being done, gratis, by Lakehead University engineering student Jacob Gourley as a school project. It’ll include a separating tower, a ‘pig trap’ and more. All of which can and do catch on fire and which Coutts intends his people to have practiced on in preparation for the real thing.

The oilfield component of the training facility is just the latest. Others are in process, including a simulated forestry lookout tower, an actual rail car, a “basement prop,” a “firefighter survival prop,” and a couple of ponds (currently under construction) that will allow various water training exercises on site. One would be oil spill containment, which the Area ‘D’ Co-op plans on using, Coutts said.

“A hundred-and-eighty guys will come here for an oil spill training session.”

Speaking of large groups, around 300 firefighters from across the country will be in town this September for an annual conference. Coutts said his goal is to get all the components of the expanded live fire training centre running by then. He expects it to make a good impression – one reason being there’s nothing quite like it elsewhere.

“It’s exciting as far as Alberta is concerned,” he said. “Even Canada.”

There are components of what is being assembled at the Slave Lake fire hall elsewhere in Canada, Coutts said, “but nothing like this. As a finished package, no one will have what we have.”

And it’s all being done “with no local or provincial tax money.”

Donations – as noted – are a big part of it. Otherwise, provincial lotteries grants are part of the picture, as was some money from the Regional Tri-Council (which would have been provincial disaster recovery money). The other and smallest funding component, Coutts said, is fundraising.

Use of the facility by outside organizations seems to be a growing trend.

“Constantly,” said Coutts, in response to a question on that topic. “In May we had 55 guys here from 12 departments.”

The vision for the live fire training centre was born in 2002. Coutts said it “ignited something in our people,” and it developed from there, “as we can afford it.”

Buy-in was slow in developing provincially, but it seems to be picking up steam. It should get a significant boost when the Canadian Volunteer Firefighter Services Association (CVFSA) members congregate in Slave Lake this fall.

“This is the first time the conference has been held in Alberta,” says the CVFSA on its Facebook page, “and we are adding hands-on training as well as a trade show.”

The training could be pretty interesting, given what Coutts and his people are building out there.

“We’ll be setting all these buildings on fire,” he said.

Some of the new stuff at the fire hall yard; it’s all donated and will be fixed up to simulate an oilfield installation for training purposes.

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