It was 6 a.m. on January 13 – the day after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Captain David Jane, the fire chief at 8 Wing Trenton, Ont., got a call from the Canadian Forces fire marshal telling him to plan on sending a team of firefighters to Haiti.
Fourteen hours later Capt Jane had had his team of nine firefighters ready and equipped to go. The next morning, they were in Port-au-Prince.
It was the first humanitarian mission for the 8 Wing firefighters, who flew to Haiti with the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART). The firefighters carried out urban search and rescue (USAR), using their training, experience and initiative to break new ground in Canadian Forces humanitarian operations. They proved to be a valuable asset to the DART and the entire operation.
One of those nine firefighters was Corporal Eric Chafe. He had just spent six months the previous year in Afghanistan as the fire chief for Forward Operating Base Sperwan Ghar – but it was the four-year firefighting veteran’s first tour in a humanitarian role. The former rifleman and bosun was joined by Cpls Michael Nicholson, Frederick Wrobel, Kevin Landry, Andrew Fleming, Ryan Turcotte, Lawrence Martin and Pte William Porteous. Afterward, Sgt Mike MacNeil also joined them.
USAR involves extracting people, alive or dead, from buildings either damaged or destroyed. Cpl Chafe and his 8 Wing Trenton team mates did not have the specific USAR course like their colleagues from 19 Wing Comox who arrived five days later, but they had the right skills.
“A lot of us had confined space rescue and high-angle rescue training. We all understood the mechanics of what to go into and when not to go in and rope-work was not an issue,” Cpl Chafe said.
The morning after they arrived, Cpl Chafe and his team set out, tools in hand, with search and rescue technicians (SAR techs) from 424 (Transport and Rescue) Squadron from 8 Wing. They went into Port-au-Prince looking for Canadians rumoured to be trapped in the rubble.
Cpl Chafe said it was an eye-opener.
“To see a five-storey building turned into a one to one and a half storey building, and now you have to figure out how to get in there, it certainly poses some challenges,” he said.
The firefighters then went to Jacmel with the DART on January 19. Before the week was over, they were liaising directly with the local mayor’s office and advising them about buildings damaged by the ‘quake. Not long afterward, they were doing controlled demolition with the DART’s engineers for the Haitians’ safety and searching for other Canadians.
The DART’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Ewing explained that while the firefighters were a new and untried element of the DART, their motivation, skill and experience made them almost indispensable.
“They’ve done a great job. You give them a task and they go and do it, and come back for more,” he said. “I let them go do it and use their initiative to come up with solutions. A lot of them have come with previous experience in other trades which helps them come up with creative solutions.”
Cpl Chafe said he would like to take the USAR course. He said he sees potential for firefighters to deploy in a USAR role on future humanitarian operations, and it’s something that he enjoys.
“It’s a different aspect of firefighting. Our job is to bust openings up and get people out,” he said. “It’s hard work but it’s interesting.”
After working Jacmel, most of the firefighters returned to Port-au-Prince to assist in extracting remains from buildings believed to have trapped Canadians. Cpl Chafe and the other 8 Wing Trenton firefighters have now returned home.
As part of their work, Canadian and American Urban Search and Rescue personnel worked together at one site in particular, the College St-Louis de Gonzague, to recover the remains of earthquake victims so that they could be returned to their families.