Nova Scotia

Truro fire chief puts training at Waverley school on hold after firefighter's death

In the wake of the training incident that led to firefighter Skyler Blackie's death, Chief Blois Currie is on alert for signs that the tragedy is taking a toll on the mental health of his firefighters.

Skyler Blackie, 28, died after suffering a head injury in a training accident on March 9

Truro Fire Chief Blois Currie says he was more than Skyler Blackie's boss. He was also a friend. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Behind one of the engines at the Truro, N.S., fire station is a rack of protective clothing for members of Platoon B. Hanging in the front is Skyler Blackie's coat with his name emblazoned in fluorescent yellow letters.

The display is one of many ways the Truro Fire Service is honouring the firefighter whose tragic death from a training incident has left a huge void among a close-knit group of firefighters seeking to heal.

"We'll make sure that we remember him and keep his spirit alive," said Truro fire chief Blois Currie, in his first sit-down interview since the mishap involving a fire extinguisher at the Nova Scotia Firefighters School in Waverley on March 9.

"It's going to be a tough time to get back to whatever the new norm is going to be."

Truro firefighters rushed to Blackie's aid

Blackie, who worked as a fire fighter for 10 years, died in hospital after suffering a head injury in training last month. He was 28.

Three of his fellow firefighters were nearby when he was hurt and rushed to his aid, said Currie. It could've been the fate of any member taking training that day, he said.

They're constantly reminded of Blackie because his brother, Errison, is also a firefighter. 

With grief casting a pall on the Truro fire hall, Currie has taken steps to safeguard the mental health of the town's nearly 50 volunteer and full-time firefighters. For the time being, he's decided to stop sending them to the training school where Blackie was hurt.

"My biggest thing is the emotional side of it," he said. "I don't think it's time for our members to go down and be put into that situation right now."

Truro Fire Service has 16 full-time firefighters. From left to right: Maurice Colpitts, Mike Mabey, Mitchell Shewfelt and fire inspector Josh Chisling. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

The move is also a safety precaution — and one that Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency has also chosen by suspending activities at the training school while Labour Department investigators look into what caused the incident.

In the interim, the department has hit the school with two compliance orders concerning fire extinguishers and training and certification records.

The Cape Breton Regional Municipality took the immediate step of returning all of the school's extinguishers it uses.

Firefighting is a high-risk profession in which 90 per cent of the job is training, Currie said. The fact that Blackie died following a training incident is tough for Currie to reconcile. He believes it was an accident that underscores the importance of safety.

"If we can at least make sure that we're making sure that our equipment is safe, ready to go when we need it, [and] just be a little more aware of your surroundings," said Currie.

Blackie's line of duty death is noted on his portrait. At the end of the hallway, his uniform hangs on an antique fire bell. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

This fire service has experienced the sorrow of losing a young firefighter before. Cody Glode, a Mi'kmaw man, was Truro's youngest career firefighter. He was 20 when he died by suicide in March 2016.

Rocked by yet another death, grief counsellors, a critical incident team from Halifax and psychologists have been made available for the team.

'We can't shut the doors, work has to continue'

When Blackie moved from the Halifax-area to Truro, Currie took him under his wing by providing him a place to live until he could get on his feet.

Blackie's coworkers became some of his closest friends.

At Blackie's wedding n 2017, the chief and four firefighters were groomsmen.

Skyler Blackie's groomsmen and fellow Truro firefighters. From left to right: Skyler, his brother Errison, Craig Mathews, Tom Malone, Blois Currie and Logan Daly. (Jillian Kennedy Photography)

"It's unfortunate that you stand in his wedding and then you have to stand at his funeral," said Currie.

He said he's grateful and overwhelmed at the sympathy and support that came from near and far. About 3,000 first responders from across Canada and the U.S. attended the regimental funeral, while people in the town of 12,000 showed up with coffee and food.

All that helps to heal, said Currie. That's his priority for his firefighters whose job is to respond to tragedy.

Blackie would say firefighters could "make muscles" at the gym he helped set up, according to Currie. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

He said he's aware that he needs to watch his team to ensure they're coping and feel supported, even if they don't want to talk about their grief.

"Unfortunately we can't shut the doors, work has to continue," the chief said. "My goal now is to make sure that the membership is ok."

About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.

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