Hellfire Heroes

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Jamie Coutts is the quintessential Fire Chief. With a hard-charging type A personality he both drives and protects his department of firefighters.  He has been chief of the Lesser Slave Lake Regional Fire Service for 15 years and a firefighter for 25.  Jamie describes his job as “being able to fly at 30,000 feet and see everything that is going on”.
Shaping the department and how it operates is his priority, whether it’s researching new equipment, perfecting trucks or pushing his staff.  For Jamie training and knowledge for a firefighter determines a life or death outcome when it comes to his team, so he makes sure they are endlessly improving their skills and have the best equipment to do it with.  
Although his 21-year-old son Ryan is a firefighter in his hall, Jamie doesn’t treat him any different than the rest of his team.  To the Chief the Slave Lake Fire Service is a strong family.

Favourite Emergency:
“The only good emergency is one where people don’t get hurt.”

Most Memorable Experience:
“Well, I have a thousand experiences, but for me it would have to be the devastating result of the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire. Never before or after have I really looked at my life and thought: am I doing the right thing?  Even if we had lost one life, I wouldn’t have been able to stand it. We were literally surrounded, and there were moments where we weren’t sure whether we could save this town. We’ve lived here our whole lives and we almost lost it.  How do you ever forget that?”


With a dad who is the Fire Chief of Slave Lake twenty-one-year-old Ryan spent most of his childhood running around the fire hall and playing with toy fire trucks.  So it wasn’t a surprise when at age 14 he joined the Junior Fire Program.  At first he was an adrenaline junkie ready to jump on the trucks at any moment, but he quickly learned it was more important to be focused just on his team.
Ryan, along with fellow firefighter Patrick, is in charge of the Tech and Water Rescue Program.  He loves to drive, and is often the department’s main truck driver, as well as managing all the equipment onsite.
Ryan believes a firefighter should always be training and learning since it’s an evolving career, and, as he says: “If you think you know it all, you’re wrong – dead wrong”.

Favourite Emergency:
“This is a bit embarrassing to admit, but just riding on the fire truck when the tones, lights and sirens go off is my favourite – it doesn’t matter where we are headed –t here’s no other adrenaline rush like that.”

Most Memorable Experience:
“A couple of years 
ago we got a call that a helicopter went down at
a fire site. I was just 18 and officially I wasn’t supposed to be out on calls.  But my dad let me hop on the truck and we went charging into the woods. We found the pilot and he was in bad shape.  We thought there was no hope. The fire crew had been working all day on wild land fires and one of the guys, who was carrying the helicopter pilot, had somehow cut up his feet and he fell on his way with the gurney. So I jumped out of the truck and grabbed a corner and lifted the pilot out.  My dad looked at me and
 I knew we were both thinking one thing: Mom is going to kill us. But you know, the pilot survived, so it was totally worth it.”


As Deputy Chief of Operations Shawn is in charge of scheduling all of the department’s training, maintaining the trucks and completing all needed paperwork. 
Shawn has only been with the department for six years and was a hunting guide and oil patch worker prior.  What he finds most challenging about his job is covering such a large area and never knowing what he might face.  Shawn is also the Incident Commander on scene co-ordinating a plan of attack. 

Favourite Emergency:
“What could be more fun than running into a burning building?!”

Most Memorable Experience:
“Last year we got called out 
to a vehicle accident on the highway.  A guy was trapped
 inside his truck in a space of 24 inches.  The cab was totally crushed.  He was breathing when we first got there and then when we started working he stopped breathing.  While getting him out is the ultimate priority we had to start up his breathing again. But the medics weren’t there so I made a makeshift bag valve mask and we got him breathing again.  There was a point that we weren’t sure he’d make it, but literally in the last possible minute he started breathing again. We did our work and he made a full recovery. I’ll never forget it.”


Although his grandfather was a Fire Chief and his father a firefighter in Alberta Alex wasn’t sure he wanted to pursue it fulltime and instead volunteered for 16 years.  Instead he worked at a well-paying 9 to 5 job while raising his three children until he felt he was ready to make the leap to fulltime firefighter. 
Now in his early forties Alex is the Deputy Chief at Slave Lake.  Although he has the ambition of being Chief one day, he wants to learn as much as he can from Chief Coutts whom he considers a “great leader”.  
For the past two years Alex has also been working as a fire investigator delving more into the science behind fire.  And his 15-year-old son is showing interest in being the 4th generation Paveck firefighter.

Most Memorable Experience:
“A few years ago we
 got a 10 p.m. call about a missing 6-year-old autistic boy.  He and his dog had most likely wandered off into the thick forest in Valleyview on the edge of Slave Lake. A helicopter went out with the searchlight. We’re on the ground, just charging through the forest, looking under every branch in every abandoned cabin.  As the hours go it’s getting colder and we get worried that 
we’re running out of time. Just then we get word from the helicopter they can see the boy.  We get the coordinates, but we’re easily an hour away from him.  Jamie runs to a nearby farm, and we’re all running right behind him.  We borrow a pickup truck from the farm and start flying through the semi-cut trails.  By 8 a.m. we get to the boy.  His dog was sitting with him the whole time. We were the first ones to get to the kid and to give him back to his parents. We were all so exhausted, but it was probably the best experience of my life.”


Patrick can’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be a firefighter. He was one of the youngest volunteers ever at 14 when he joined as a junior firefighter. He didn’t get to do much more than wash the trucks, but despite that, he was hooked.
What drives Patrick is both the physical and mental elements of firefighting, and he specializes in Tech Rescue, which involves rope, confined space, and industrial accident rescue.

Favourite Emergency:
“I’m kind of a rescue nerd.  Residential fires are the trickiest, but any type of rescue that involves getting people safely out
of danger works for me really.”

Most Memorable Experience:
“I’ll never forget the floods in High River. You get so used to fighting fires that you forget the amount of damage that water can do.  We were flown into High River and had to land in a golf course. It was the only place our helicopter could land.  As we were landing we flew by trees with golf carts sitting in the top of their branches. It really opened my eyes.”


Logan didn’t really plan to be a firefighter, but his uncle worked for the department so when he needed volunteer hours to complete his high school graduation diploma it seemed like a good place to volunteer.  Soon he was completed hooked, and at age 18 became the youngest recruit at Slave Lake. 
Logan plans to make a long career of firefighting - especially in Slave Lake - where he says he loves the vast area the department covers which leads to an exciting variety of challenging calls.
Chief Coutts has offered up his basement to Logan where he lives with fellow firefighter Ryan.  When Ryan’s dad doesn’t hear enough from Logan he usually checks in with Chief Coutts for an update, and the Chief has no problem reporting on the hardworking Logan.

Favourite Emergency:
“My first structural fires.”

Most Memorable Experience:
“One summer there was a
 wildfire threatening some homes about 20 kilometres away.  I hopped in the truck with Patrick and Ryan and evacuated a bunch of residents. Then we started setting up sprinklers and protecting their property.  You have to get the people out fast. It’s pretty urgent... and they didn’t have time to grab anything, but I was able to calm them down. And being a shy guy, that was really great.”


Adam is the newest addition and yet oldest firefighter to join Chief Coutts’ fulltime squad of “Fire-Eaters”, effectively making him the rookie.  He left a long-time job of working rigs in the oil business to pursue his lifelong dream of being a firefighter. Adam has only been a firefighter for a year, but is trained as a water rescuer and recently had his first rescue saving a boy stuck in mud within a creek.   
Adam made the decision to uproot and move with his wife and two daughters to Slave Lake, but feels it was well worth it when his daughters show how proud they are of their dad.


Albert Bahri has been in fire protection for 33 years, and the Director of Protective Services and the Fire Chief for Yellowhead County since 2014.  Yellowhead County covers a vast region of 22,000 square kilometres.
Albert oversees a fleet of 32 vehicles, nine stations and more than 150 full and part time members. Many describe him as a calming force in a chaotic career.
Originally from Nova Scotia Albert is just one of a family full of firefighters which include his wife, son, father, brother-in-law and nephew.


After only seven years in the force, Gabby Sundstrom is a lieutenant at Station 12 in Yellowhead County. She grew up in a nearby town that was so remote it had only one intersection, a store, a bar and a school. 
Gabby and her sister both became firefighters at the same time when they jointly felt the need to follow a helpful and meaningful career.  While they worked together at Yellowhead County for a while they are now in different departments.
Gabby is also a training officer for young recruits and volunteers in Yellowhead County.  
Favourite Emergency:
“A few years ago I was at a structure fire.  There were a bit of debris and smoldering areas so we were applying foam.  My partner was on the nozzle and I was a couple of feet back feeding hose around a corner.  He turned to his left and opened his nozzle and just like that the yellow firefighter in front of me turned white.  The room he sprayed into was a laundry room and hit a washer and dryer with concave doors, which sprayed the foam right back at him.  I could hardly breathe because I was laughing so hard.  Afterwards he said: ‘You don't have to laugh so hard’. Oh, but I did.”
Most Memorable Experience:  
“I was on a medical call, and on arrival I recognized the home was that of a guy I went to elementary school with.  The guy wasn't there, but his dad was having difficulty breathing.  My sister and I were new so we were tasked with bringing in some gear and observing while our chief and deputy chief - who was also a paramedic - assessed the patient.  While that was happening the man's wife, who was distraught, looked at me and squeezed my arm saying: ‘You went to school with my son.’ I replied yes. The sigh and look of comfort from her has stayed with me.  I was a little shocked and thrilled that I could be the person who was the source of someone's comfort in that kind of moment.”