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Responding to the Humboldt Broncos Incident: A Conversation with Chief Brian Starkell

Fire Chiefs Brian Starkell and Mike Kwasnica will deliver the opening address at the Disaster Forum ICS Workshop on Oct. 25th in Saskatoon. Chief Starkell sat down with us in advance of the event, to share some of his experience.

A monument erected at the crash site. Six months after the incident, visitors still come daily to pay their respects.

When he got the call to respond to a bus/semi-trailer crash on April 6th, 2018, Nipawin’s Fire Chief Brian Starkell knew immediately that he needed to call his good friend Mike to tell him to turn on his radio. Mike Kwasnica is the City of Humboldt Fire Chief, and the bus carrying players, coaches and other staff of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team had been struck by a semi-trailer at a T-junction on a remote Saskatchewan highway near Tisdale. This began one of the most challenging responses in either of their careers, starting with Brian heading up Incident Command at the scene, and Mike working to set up a Trauma Response Centre in Humboldt. In the hours and days that followed, the two men led response to the crash that devastated a community. Managing emergencies is a task that years of training and experience has equipped them for. On top of managing emergency operations, they also handled relations with media professionally and respectfully. It’s no surprise that the tragedy drew local, national and international radio, TV, social and print media. In the months since the crash both men have continued to be in the forefront of helping the affected communities heal the wounds they suffered that night.

Brian tells us that response to this unprecedented disaster was effective. A complex operation, it was a classic multi-agency, multi-jurisdiction operation that demanded a high degree of coordination and cooperation from all those involved. And they coped without many of the resources that larger communities take for granted. Fire, EMS, Conservation Officers, RCMP, STARS, and many people from the region came together to achieve one goal: to save lives. Blankets that were badly needed on this cool Spring night appeared, as if out of thin air. Brian says, “To this day we don’t know where they all came from but we were so grateful that they did!” This is just one example of how the community came together to help emergency responders that night. Brian expresses immense gratitude for the unstinting support given by citizens and organizations of the area. There are too many to name, but they are appreciated all the same. While Brian feels everyone responded well, he asserts “We were just doing our jobs.” This humility is common among emergency responders who see their role as ancillary to the core tragedy of events like the one they faced on April 6th.

Brian attributes the success of the response to training and practice. In his words, “Everyone molded into one team. We worked together incredibly smoothly because we train. We train constantly so that when called, we respond instinctively.” Ongoing dedication to training and skill-development built the proficiency that emergency responders brought to bear on that day. It is this proficiency that makes the emergency management aspect of the story barely newsworthy. Because a smooth operation does not draw attention, even as it significantly minimizes the consequences of a tragedy.

Disaster Forum is honoured to welcome Fire Chiefs Brian Starkell and Mike Kwasnica to deliver the opening address at the Disaster Forum Incident Command System Workshop being held in Saskatoon on October 25th. Delegates to this workshop will hear about their experience first-hand, and receive ICS training from a team of skilled facilitators to help develop just the kind of instinctive response that Brian describes.

As all those affected by the crash continue the work of healing and recovery, it is the response of rural communities and the dedication of emergency responders that has touched the hearts of people across Canada and the world. In the face of incredible loss, this has been a small silver lining in a very dark cloud.

For more information on the Disaster Forum ICS Workshops, visit the DF 2018 events page.

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