Feature Articles

New farm safety program launched

March 18, 2008

Rural Emergency Plan points emergency responders in the right direction – quickly and safely.

When firefighters respond to an emergency in rural Alberta, their attention is often pulled in many directions. In a split second, they have to decide which structure they need to save first, and how to stay safe while doing so. A new program aims to help keep everyone on the scene safe, while facilitating a quick response in an emergency.

The Rural Emergency Plan (REP) is an emergency response map that each participant fills out for their own location. It is stored in a simple ABS tube holder typically mounted on the main power pole or other central area where it can be easily identified and accessed by emergency personnel. It was designed based on input from farmers and emergency personnel to help save time and lives.

The Alberta Environmental Farm Plan Company (AEFP) and the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association (AFCA) launched the program with financial support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Alberta Agriculture and Food, to help protect rural landowners, their families and emergency personnel in the event of a fire, environmental or other emergency.

"We think that this program is a win on many different levels," says Peter Krich, fire chief for the City of Camrose, which piloted the program. "If the landowner fills out the map that means they have a plan in place to protect themselves. But this also helps us as emergency responders because we know if there are chemicals or other hazards on the property that we need to be aware of. It means we're not heading into the unknown."

Piloting the project

The program was developed based on the sections of the Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) process in which farmers consider emergency planning. With no existing tool in place, AEFP worked with AFCA to develop a pilot emergency plan and then tested it on farms in two areas of the province in 2007. The program received positive feedback from farmers and the support of the provincial fire chiefs, with 900 tubes distributed. The current REP has been extended to rural landowners because, as Krich says, they are a unique audience in the case of an emergency.

"We've spent a lot of time in urban areas talking about exit plans, getting out and staying out, and other messaging," he says. "But while that's still relevant to rural homes, there are some differences. There are often a number of buildings other than the home, and chemicals and other potential hazards are stored on site. This program helps to make sure that the locations of all of those hazards are identified."

Art Reiten was one of the first people to take up the challenge of the pilot program. His wife heard about the program at a local trade show and thought it would be a good fit for their acreage. The couple's farmstead is just west of Camrose, and they rent out a quarter section of adjacent farmland.

"Hopefully it's something that we'll never need," says Reiten, "But we feel good knowing that it's there. The first thing we thought about was safety for the firefighters. We laid out where our gas lines, our shutoffs and our hazardous materials were. Knowing where all of these things are makes the farm safer for all involved and can hopefully help head off a disaster."

Reiten says he found the forms simple to fill out, and they helped him think about where everything was located on his land. "As part of the kit you have to draw the lay of the land," he says. "It made us consider our access points to the farm – did we have good secondary access? Also, thinking about where runoff could go makes you consider the environmental impact of an emergency."

Seeing the kit mounted on his power pole created a buzz amongst his neighbours, and virtually everyone in the immediate area also came on board with the pilot project. He's glad to hear that rural landowners province-wide will have the opportunity to get involved.

"It gives you a good feeling that not only are you, to a degree, safer, but that you are also helping keep those who come to help you safe," he says.

Do-it-yourself tool

Participants interested in the program can access an instruction kit and construction design from their local fire department or from the Web at the program's Web site, www.ruralemergencyplan.com. The kit includes an REP template as well as instructions on how participants can build their own storage tubes.

The REP typically includes all of the essential personal safety or environmental information first responders would require to quickly and accurately deal with an emergency. That includes a map of the farmstead, a runoff map, emergency phone numbers, a checklist and other key information emergency personnel might need to make fast and effective decisions.

Landowners are then asked to contact their local fire department to let them know where the plan is located in the event of an emergency.

"This program is primarily about personal safety," says Krich. "When we first launched the pilot program, I was speaking to a group of 300 and when I asked, none of them had an emergency plan in place - none at all. Each one of those landowners now has the information to do an REP and we hope that this success will spread province-wide, so an emergency situation doesn't turn tragic."

Fundraising Opportunity

Although still in its early stages, the Rural Emergency Plan (REP) has gained a great deal of interest among Alberta landowners.

While the kit itself is fully printable off the Web at little personal cost, the tubes are constructed from inexpensive materials found at most hardware or building supply stores. These REP tubes may represent a possible fundraising opportunity for groups that wish to build and sell them. REP guidelines, including production guidelines, are available on the REP Web site or from local fire chiefs across the province.

"We have put a list of materials together for best results," says Krich. "Very little is needed - basically some ABS pipe, caps, mounting brackets and reflective tape. But we'd hate the construction of the tube to be a deterrent. We hope that local groups will take on this project to help earn some extra money for their group, and also help encourage people to get involved with the REP."

For more information on the REP and for production guidelines, visit the Web site at www.ruralemergencyplan.com or contact your local fire department. Fundraising information is also available from local Alberta fire departments.

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