Upgraded training programs are equipping Lethbridge firefighters and paramedics for new challenges. And Fire Chief Brian Cornforth says the city's emergency command centre - inside the new fire headquarters facility downtown - has already proven its value during two recent wildfires here.
Cornforth says he'll propose some new initiatives later this year, when city council considers its new capital improvement program. The number of emergency calls continues to rise year by year, he reports.
With the city growing in all directions, he says Lethbridge may eventually have to decide between building additional fire halls - or moving existing facilities further into the suburbs.
End-of-year figures show more than 1,425 fire or rescue events through 2012, the emergency service's 100th year of operation.
That's up seven per cent from a year earlier, the chief says. And it's in addition to 1,200-plus medical responses by EMT personnel - up 12 per cent. Cornforth says many of those ambulance calls were also backed up by cross-trained firefighters, equipped with advanced life-support gear, including defibrillators.
That team approach gets medical help to the scene just as promptly as possible, he points out.
"We have one of the best systems in North America."
Two serious wildfires - one in September and the other in 2011 - also demonstrated the importance of a communications system. Fire and police previously used separate networks, but Cornforth says response to last fall's blaze was well co-ordinated thanks to greatly improved communications.
Lethbridge "911" operators continue to dispatch ambulance calls across southwestern Alberta, he adds.
The department's northside training centre was also upgraded, as the downtown hall arose on 3 Avenue South, and Cornforth says it now includes such "props" as kitchens and bedrooms, making training events much more realistic. It also provides hands-on experience with such common outdoor hazards as propane barbecues and cars on fire.
Adapting to new challenges, he says firefighters are also learning how to deal with fires and rescues from electric vehicles. Applying the "jaws of life" to the wrong part could mean a high-voltage shock.
"We're really focusing on the safety side of things."
Lethbridge recently acquired the "fully encapsulated" attire needed to respond to hazardous materials incidents, the chief says.
"That meant a lot of training and hard work," but it means southern Albertans no longer rely on "hazmat" experts from Calgary. The fire service is also equipped to detect and identify hazardous gases like chlorine, and to predict in which direction they'll drift.
""We're really reliant on technology today."
One of the training targets for 2013, Cornforth says, is a joint exercise linking Lethbridge with a number of other emergency response agencies in Alberta. On an ongoing basis, he adds, Lethbridge personnel are enrolled in emergency management courses from the province's fire training college in Vermilion.
At the same time, Cornforth says the college is involved in research including fire prevention. Recent changes in Alberta's fire code, designed to impede a fire's growth, have come in response to recent incidents like the Slave Lake disaster.
Today, he says, that means some building materials that are allowed in homes close to the city's four fire halls can't be used in subdivisions further away - where help takes longer to arrive.
City council's decisions impact those response times, so Cornforth will list his priorities when he speaks during council's capital improvement presentations.
The old southside fire hall could be due for replacement - if council can find the money.
"It could take $6 or $7 million for a new hall and equipment," he says. "That's a council decision."