January 23rd, 2021

Fire chief optimistic heading into 2020

By Nick Kuhl on January 4, 2020.

Tim Kalinowski

Lethbridge Herald


Lethbridge Fire and Emergency Services Chief Marc Rathwell hopes 2020 
will see some easing of the strain on his members, and an increasing 
sense of optimism in the community at large.
“I think you have to have a certain amount of optimism in this job 
because I am here for my community,” he says. “I have to feel my 
community is doing OK. I live here. I raised my kids here. All of my 
extended family is from around here — this is home. So, yeah, I am 
optimistic. Yes, our community has challenges. But we’re going to 
work our way through those challenges and we’re going to come out the 
other side and we’ll have a better system.”
While the previous year saw an increase in calls related to the 
ongoing opioid crisis, and much the same is expected this year, 
Rathwell sees it as his mission as chief to keep his people healthy so 
they can continue to respond effectively.
“We want to make it healthier for them,” he confirms. “Whether 
that’s mental health or physical health, we’re trying to make it 
better for our crews. I know if we can take little bit of stress off 
of them, they tend perform better for everyone in the community. 
That’s my job to try to do that.”
These hopes aside, Rathwell says since taking over as Chief of Fire 
and Emergency Services from retiring Chief Richard Hildebrandt last 
June has been a challenging and rewarding experience.
“Taking over this job has been like drinking from a fire hose,” he 
says with a laugh. “There is a lot of information you have to work 
around. When I was deputy chief of operations, I ran the day-to-day 
pieces of fire and EMS for the city, and I reported to the chief. My 
job here now is to make sure all our groups are running smoothly, and 
I have to make sure the funding piece is going well. I am making sure 
our City folks are happy with that, and our department is getting 
their needs met.”
To that end, one of Rathwell’s biggest challenges of 2020 will be 
preparing the new Watermark fire hall in west Lethbridge to ensure it 
gets fully staffed and resourced, and his crews are ready to put the 
station into full operation once construction is complete in June of 
Ten new recruits will be trained and added to the department this year 
and the same number will be added in 2021 to provide the numbers 
required to man the new fire station. This is the biggest class of 
recruits ever added in Rathwell’s memory.
“We’re moving it forward, and we’re going to be there to support 
our west side of the city,” he states. “We haven’t added any 
additional resources in terms of fire to our community for a very long 
time. So I am very excited about this, and I believe it’s really 
going to help down the road with what we’re going to do in keeping 
things safe and efficient for our community.”
Rathwell says the location of the new fire station, at this time about 
two kilometres from the existing fire hall No. 2, is also a transitory 
situation toward future plans for building another fire station 
farther out to better serve both the firefighting and EMS needs of 
west Lethbridge.
“The new station is right where it belongs,” he says. “The older 
station on the westside actually needs to be moved farther north on 
the westside. That’s in the design plan, but everything has to be 
done in steps because they are expensive pieces when they go through.”
Rathwell also intends in 2020 to continue to advance the fire 
service’s cancer mitigation program for the long-term health of his 
members. Firefighters continue to die in North America at a much 
higher rate than the general public from various cancers related to 
their profession, and Rathwell has made his mission as chief to combat 
this in any way he can.
“We’re doing everything we can here,” he says, “and we are 
looking at any other initiatives we can, to try to reduce the cancer 
risk to our firefighters. For me, to deal with the safety of all the 
folks here as much as I can — that is one of my prime objectives.”
One of the biggest investments the department has made in that regard 
is two “extractor” washers — one of which is currently housed at 
the downtown fire station and the other which will eventually be 
housed at the new Watermark station.
“We have brought in some special machines,” he confirms. “They 
are basically fancy washing machines designed to get all the 
particulates out of our gear after a fire event … We know that gear 
that is dirty is holding all these carcinogens in them. And we know 
all our new (building) construction materials we use nowadays have a 
lot more chemicals in them that put more carcinogens out when they 
This is a big departure from firefighting tradition which tended to 
see the wearing of fire-tarnished gear as a mark of veteran experience 
in the firefighting service.
“I don’t want my guys looking dirty anymore in that traditional 
‘been there, done that,’ sense; I want them to smell Downey 
fresh,” jokes Rathwell. “I want them to have that clean gear all 
the time so I know we have gotten those particulates out of their gear 
so that they are safe.”
While there were many memorable moments to choose from in 2019 both 
tragic and heartwarming, on a more cheerful note a personal highlight 
for Rathwell was the great success of the goat-grazing program 
implemented this past summer for the first time to help reduce the 
fire risk to homes and public facilities along the coulee tops just 
off of Scenic Drive South.
“The goats were fantastic,” he confirms. “That was a pilot 
project through the Alberta government. We brought the goats out to 
see how it would work for reducing some of the vegetation and issues 
in the coulees where we can’t get into very well to cut the grass 
back or the vegetation. I believe from the data we have looked at and 
the process we went through that they did a phenomenal job. They were 
able to clean out areas unbelievably well.”
Rathwell hopes to put some funding together somehow to continue the 
program in coming years — noting that wildfire events are becoming 
more common and preventing them is easier and less costly than 
stopping them.
“We have seen those types of out-of-control fires,” he says. “We 
have seen the Slave Lakes and the Fort McMurrays. I am not saying we 
have the big forest issues like some of those other communities do, 
but we do have wildfires and grassfires that do come through here.”
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