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Fighting fires in the Arctic is not easy

Training sessions see Nunavut firefighters’ response times improve
Whale Cove firefighters work together to douse a car on fire. Photo courtesy of Randy Fleming

It’s tougher to be a volunteer firefighter in a Nunavut community than a full-time firefighter in an urban centre.

That’s at least according to Randy Fleming, division chief with Toronto Pearson Fire and Emergency Services.

“The environment that the firefighters in Nunavut work in is about the hardest environment to be a firefighter that I know of,” said Fleming, who is nearly finished a five-month tour of Nunavut to train firefighters in different communities.

Limited resources in the communities and lack of training opportunities – plus the short training season in the summer before winter takes over – makes even responding to calls a challenge, said Fleming.

His training began in Cambridge Bay in June and has taken him across the territory since, including most of the Kivalliq.

Fleming has more than 30 years of experience in fire services, having started out as a proud volunteer. He was contracted by the Nunavut Municipal Training Organization and fire marshall to build up Nunavut firefighters’ skills.

“This was an amazing opportunity for a bunch of reasons,” said Fleming.

For one, he loves firefighting. For two, he’s dreamt of the Arctic since his childhood, and this was his first time in Nunavut.

He missed birthdays, special occasions and his summer back home for this training opportunity.

“I’ve given up a lot personally for this program,” said Fleming. “But I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I’ve got a long career and a pretty good reputation down south. This has probably been one of the most humbling and gratifying training experiences that I’ve had in 30 years.”

He remarked a few times about how impressive the volunteer firefighters in different communities were, despite the tough conditions and their lack of resources.

“I’ve been leaving every community feeling the community is safer,” said Fleming. “It’s not because of my efforts; it’s because of the dedication of the firefighters there.”

Fleming’s top goal in his training sessions was speeding up firefighters’ response time.

“We made a lot of mistakes down south,” said Fleming, relating to his own experience. “We lost buildings that we should have save. And the number one factor was we were too slow. By the time we got off the truck to the time we got water into the building, we were losing buildings we should have saved.”

It’s made tougher these days with how much plastic is in homes, meaning that by the time a fire is noticed, it might be out of control already.

Fleming has brought one souvenir back from his time in the North: an orphaned puppy from Rankin Inlet chief Mark Wyatt. He officially ends his training in November in Iqaluit.

“The skill level of the firefighters that I’ve worked with has been really humbling and inspirational,” said Fleming.

Arviat firefighters get experience properly using the hose. Photo courtesy of Randy Fleming
Baker Lake firefighters join for a photo during training. From left are Jake Nanooklook, Mark Nanooklook (in the back), Alvin Pudnak, Zeke Pootoogook, Randy Fleming, JoeJoe Akilak (in the front), Deputy Chief Vincent Inukpak and Captain Timothy Nanooklook. Photo courtesy of Randy Fleming
Randy Fleming didn’t have much time for tourism on his Nunavut training trip, but he got enough of a taste for the territory to satisfy some childhood dreams. Photo courtesy of Randy Fleming