After a tragic house fire in Pikangikum earlier this year, which claimed the lives of three people after cold weather caused mechanical issues with both of the community fire trucks, a training program was established for community members.

The training program comes from Independent First Nation Alliance, which serves Pikangikum, Lac Seul, Whitesand, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, and Muskrat Dam First Nation. The goal is to train community members to be Emergency Medical Responders (EMR)

At the end of February, Pikangikum recently had their first graduating class.

Nicholas Rhone is the fire chief of IFNA Regional Fire Rescue and IFNA Integrated Emergency Services Director, and he said this program is a way to help close one of the longstanding gaps in communities in terms of medical gaps. 

"This program actually was already being worked on concurrently when the fires actually had occurred. We had received a mandate from the Chiefs in the last year or so. I've been trying to work on it concurrently," said Rhone.

When the fire in Pikangikum and other communities occurred, Rhone said they accelerated the development of the program and mentioned during one of the fires there was a child who wasn't breathing.

"It just showed that not only do you have the issue of not enough funding or support for the fire department, but you also have the compounding factor of not having any proper medical response as well," said Rhone.

You could tell that there was a lot of pride in the community, to have their own community members take their course and then graduate from it- Ron Laverty, EMS Chief, IFNA 

Ron Laverty is the EMS Chief for IFNA, and was a crucial part of the program. He said when they began to put out feelers for the program, the community's reaction and response was overwhelming.

"We had quite a bit of capacity and the community responded with a large number of people who wanted to take the training and then once we had a graduation ceremony for the first group, the community hall…It was amazing how many people turned up to support the program," said Laverty. 

"You could tell that there was a lot of pride in the community, to have their own community members take their course and then graduate from it," he said. 

Laverty said the course isn't like a regular first aid course, with more complex training and higher expectations from instructors. 

Laverty said in the course, community members are learning to respond more like a professional responder. For example, they are expected to be able to report to a doctor or nurse in the nursing station.

They also learn more airway skills than a regular first aid training provide, and they learned how more complex emergency treatment. 

"There's a pharmacology component that's much more expanded than would be given to a first aider. So they learned how to assist patients to take their own, to take their own medications and stuff like that," said Laverty.

More work to be done to keep First Nations safe

While it may help a gap with the lack of emergency services in places like Pikangikum, it's still a longstanding issue and Rhone said they have to make those next steps and the chiefs have told him they can't wait for the system to "catch up."

He mentions the two ambulances sent to Pikangikum last fall to properly transport people as part of it, as previously the back of a pickup truck was used, but people still need to be trained to use them.

Rhone said they're going in the right direction, but "we haven't arrived yet."

"We're still talking about volunteers and trying to make it work without any really sustainable funding as of yet. And those discussions are ongoing, but it's definitely one more step where now we have a safer vehicle, albeit a hand me down, but it's better than a pickup truck," said Rhone.

Going forward, Rhone hopes to receive funding to hire people as emergency responders rather than have them as volunteers.

"There's no other area, really where we expect, professional response when people volunteer. The doctors aren't supposed to volunteer, the nurses don't volunteer, the police aren't volunteers," said Rhone

"So why is it that…there's an expectation it seems that the fire department or the emergency medical responders should be volunteers, where they're going to some of the most high risk, at times dangerous, at times traumatizing, incidents where lives are on the line."


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