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Day or night, they drop what they’re doing and go to the aid of their communities. Do we appreciate them nearly enough?

Story and photography by Jodi DeLong

Originally published in Saltscapes 2005 Mar. / Apr. Issue

Imagine, if you will, the absolute blackest sort of darkness, with no light to show you where you are. Imagine that you are wearing a heavy coat and pants, steel reinforced rubber boots, leather gloves, a hood over your head, a helmet. Add to that a breathing mask, effectively cutting off your peripheral vision, a 30-pound tank on your back supplying you with air, an axe in your hand or perhaps a hose. Keep picturing the utter blackness, the eeriness of it. You’re not alone—you have a partner similarly equipped and encumbered and you are responsible for each other, as well as for yourself. Your voices are muffled as you talk, identifying walls, corners, spaces where someone could have crawled to hide from
the smoke.

The darkness is so thick you can taste it on your tongue. Your breath echoes in your mind as you inhale from your mask and exhale into the void outside. Your heart is labouring as you crawl along, feeling for doors or bodies, groping under obstacles, not knowing exactly where you are, but following a careful search pattern so you will not become a casualty yourself.

Your partner feels a door with the back of his hand, checking it for heat. Nothing. He opens it carefully. You continue to crawl. Check behind the door for victims. Nothing. How can anywhere be this dark? You listen to your breathing. Inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth, the most efficient way to use your air. Check your gauge, which indicates 14 minutes of air left from 20. So short a time? It seems like forever. Your heart pounds, you feel the touch of claustrophobia at the edges of your mind and you will yourself to breathe deeply, slowly. Panic subsides.

There! A body, alive or not you can’t tell. Your partner grasps under the arms, you grab the legs, and you begin tortuously retracing your path to leave this place. It takes only a few minutes, but it can seem like hours before the light of the outside appears and you get outside to safety.

This time it is an exercise, but next time it may not be. 

Fire. It’s the stuff of nightmares, of dreams. Poets, playwrights and prophets exalt it with rhyme, metaphor and song. Humans have clustered around its warmth since time immemorial. It can sustain life, or take it away. It’s neither solid nor liquid nor gas, but has its own unique character. And with fire comes those who challenge its supremacy: firefighters.

We’ve all watched as fire engines roar by, lights and sirens blazing a beacon of help. Or witnessed as those fighting a blaze work tenaciously, going into situations that most of us would hightail out of.

Some of our cities and towns are served by paid or career firefighters, who operate from stations on regular shifts. But many times, especially in rural areas, the firefighters who turn out to help our friends and neighbours in need are volunteers. They are well-trained volunteers, but volunteers nonetheless. At any time, day or night, they drop what they’re doing to answer the call.

I have a personal interest in this story: I used to be a volunteer firefighter, the first female in the Canning, NS, Volunteer Fire Department’s 100-year-plus history. I know first-hand the sensation of being jolted awake in the dead of night; the kick of adrenalin; the utter exhaustion after fighting a major fire or responding to a medical emergency; the banter and camaraderie of a group of men and women galvanized in a common interest; the dedication and sacrifice that goes into hours of training, the fundraising, outreach education, the cleaning and maintaining of gear. Although I resigned a few years  ago because of increasing work and family demands, I still feel an indescribable pull when the trucks go past our house....

Wolfville, in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, is very much a retirement community but also home to Acadia University. Its 39-member volunteer fire department includes men and women from varied walks of life—including a few students from Acadia University. “We ask for a two-year commitment because we have to spend a lot of time training them,” says fire chief Tim MacLeod.

MacLeod says the majority of those joining his town’s department, or any department, do so to help out their community. “The most satisfying thing is doing a good job for somebody; if you do a good stop at a house fire, or get people out of an MVA [motor vehicle accident] in a timely fashion, there’s all kinds of positives. And there’s the camaraderie. There’s always personality clashes but there’s a great fellowship... everyone gets a charge out of the jokes and the meetings.”

Firefighters admit there’s a rush of adrenalin when the pager or siren sounds, but most will also say the focus is on doing their jobs safely. As one longtime volunteer says, “Any firefighter who says he’s not afraid is a liar. Or a dead firefighter. There’s adrenalin, yeah, but you got to be smart and careful... The fear keeps us alive a lot of times, it keeps us alert.”

At one time, bells or sirens went off in a community to call firefighters to bear arms—or hose. Today, most departments page members either through local or provincial 911 emergency systems. In Harbour Grace, NL, for example, the volunteer fire brigade is called out by a telephone call to a local number, where “you’ll get the missus or the mister,” says crew chief Robert Lynch. “They’ll put out a call through the pagers we all wear: ‘all firemen to the fire station please, you have a fire.’

“We can tell by the voice on the mic what’s up, and the frequency of the pages to get us there. We can read between the lines,” he says. Lynch, a crab plant foreman and 17-year veteran of the force—who freelances for the monthly publication Atlantic Firefighter—says that while some communities like his are relatively well equipped, other small or more isolated villages rely on little more than “a couple of hoses and guys in a red pickup truck.”      

Which brings us to the question of money: how are volunteer departments funded? There’s everything from helmets to breathing apparatus to hoses and nozzles and trucks to pay for—and it all adds up. Arrangements vary with each station, depending on whether they are agencies or departments of their community, or incorporated companies owned by the members. In PEI, there’s a fire district system where ratepayers meet to decide on the annual fire rate, while in New Brunswick, most of the fire service is taxpayer based. “Usually departments will only do fundraising to bring in additional monies for purchasing a specific piece of gear,” says Doug Hamer, who has spent 30 years in the fire service, first as a volunteer and then a paid firefighter, and is now fire chief in Riverview, NB. “The demand on volunteers is already so high that officers are reluctant to spend too much time operating barbecues or bingos or auctions.”

Wolfville’s Tim MacLeod agrees. “Our town funds our department, which has an annual operating budget of between two and three hundred thousand, plus capital costs for equipment. I’d rather have a trained firefighter than one who’s half trained and out there raising money. And we’re lucky that the mutual aid system [see “Call for Backup,” page 23] helps us with additional gear and manpower at big scenes... a department doesn’t need to have every piece of equipment going.”

Of course, there’s more to firefighting than “putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.” Throughout the Atlantic Provinces, most departments provide their recruits with certification training as Level 1 firefighters, which can take up to 230 hours to complete. You learn everything from theory of fire behaviour to carrying out rescue drags and search patterns (described in this story’s opening), forcible entry and ventilation, the art of working with an SCBA (breathing apparatus), and how to handle ladders, hoses and other gear. Optional search and rescue training may include Medical First Responder training, high angle rope rescue and water rescue, depending on the community needs and volunteers available.

Each department handles training differently, often in-house and also by bringing in trainers from other departments. The Harbour Grace Brigade has five professional firefighters from St. John’s and Come-By-Chance who volunteer to help with its training. PEI and Nova Scotia have fire schools where both paid and volunteer firefighters become trained, and often the instructors visit departments to give supplemental courses. (Nova Scotia’s fire school is actually volunteer-operated, run by the fire service of the province.) New Brunswick lacks a fire school but the community college system was recently charged to co-ordinate and deliver fire service training.

A number of communities throughout the Atlantic Region—including Charlottetown, Riverview, NB, and Truro, NS—have so-called composite departments, where both paid firefighters and volunteers work side by side. In some cases this is a result of communities being amalgamated.

“The composite departments work generally quite well,” says Nova Scotia fire marshal
Robert Cormier. “Occasionally there are issues, as in any workforce. Remember that a volunteer firefighter is a very different creature; you do not, for example, have a number of volunteer police officers, or volunteer nurses or carpenters. We have a work environment where people are concerned enough about their community and the role they play in that community’s safety that they put most of the competitiveness aside.

“Professional is the caliber and quality of service and isn’t indicative of either paid or volunteer,” he adds.

Bill Hogan, chief of Charlottetown’s fire department, agrees with Cormier’s observations. “There’s the usual griping, weekend firefighters’ sort of stuff, but when the chips are down the work needs to be done, and everyone works together. I’ve run across situations with some composite departments, particularly in the States and maybe other parts of Canada, where they don’t talk, they don’t have anything to do with each other; they won’t allow each other on their particular trucks. We don’t have that problem: whoever gets here first takes the truck and goes!”

Yet the value of the volunteers can’t be underestimated. Riverview’s Doug Hamer says if a department had four full-time paid staff working 24/7 with one pumper, the cost would run to nearly two million dollars a year, every year, and “that could break municipal budgets real fast!

“There’s no way any municipality could pay for all the fire protection provided by volunteers—they’d be bankrupt if they had to pay for all of us so we need each other. But they can’t be abusing our volunteerism, either.”           

A valuable part of any fire department is the ladies auxiliary, sometimes called the Firettes, who labour behind the scenes while their partners and children are off fighting fires. Auxiliaries make meals to feed hungry firefighters; they organize suppers and benefits to raise money for the department’s use. Robert Lynch calls them the unsung heroes behind the brigade. “They get very little press or praise, but you’ll go to an annual ball and they’ll give the chief a cheque, and then do the same thing next year.”

A longtime auxiliary member from Windsor, NS, says “every mayor, every county or town councillor, every bean-counting bureaucrat ought to be given a pager and made to respond to all calls for three months.

“Let them be just sitting down to supper, going to have a shower, going to bed; be at a movie, at church, at their child’s ball game. Let them swelter in summer and freeze in -25 windchills. Let them be hauled out of bed at 2 a.m., fight a fire til 7, then go home, have a quick shower and go to work...

Let them check false alarms, attend MVAs, medical emergencies, use the Jaws of Life, perform CPR, comfort victims, direct traffic when people are determined to gawk at a scene...

“See how they feel when they’ve walked in the oversized boots and heavy bunker gear. They’d understand and support their departments a whole lot more!”         

And our fire departments provide more than emergency assistance. During the power outage in Nova Scotia this past November that in some cases lasted up to a week, stations set up emergency shelters for people who were coping with no power and heat, providing hot food and, in many cases, cots supplied by the local Red Cross. At times departments will also help raise money for a sick child or rally to collect non-perishables for the local food bank. And volunteers also promote fire prevention, a major activity in many departments.

With so many demands, it’s small wonder that member retention can be difficult. “While actual fires are down, many departments are having as many or more calls,” says Doug Hamer. “Motor vehicle crashes, hazardous material calls, emergency medical responses used to be very rare. Now some departments might do 80 to 90 per cent of their calls as Medical First Responders.

“So there’s all this extra training, plus the hours for taking Level I and II certification, a big commitment of time.”

Newfoundland firefighter Robert Lynch describes another issue: a limited pool to recruit from, as young people move away for work.

“We run into the problem of out-migration in Newfoundland; you get young fellows who want to stay home, but the jobs aren’t here so they have to move on. You give them some training, and then 18 months, two years later they’re gone to the mainland,” Lynch says.

In fact the changing demographics of many rural communities may well mean the end of some departments. Doug Hamer speaks of a friend who didn’t retire as chief of his small department until he was 83. He couldn’t physically do the job any longer, but there had been no one to replace him.

“If we don’t come up with innovative ways of maintaining volunteers, people are just going to leave,” Hamer says. “They won’t make a big public statement, they’ll just leave and departments will start to disappear.”

Call for Backup

You’re a small, rural fire department, with maybe 25 members, a pumper, a tanker and rescue vehicle, and you’ve been paged out to a barn fire. What do you do? You call for help in the form of mutual aid. Before long, more tanker trucks, pumpers, an aerial truck and, most importantly, plenty more people—all from neighbouring departments—are on their way.

Western Nova Scotia (including Kings, Hants and Annapolis counties) has a so-called mutual aid system well known throughout the North American firefighting world. It was started “on a handshake” in 1950, running from Mount Uniacke to Yarmouth.

When a department has a large fire, the chief will request of 911 dispatch that other departments be paged to attend. In some cases, the request will be for a specific piece of equipment, such as an aerial truck or additional tankers, or perhaps simply for additional manpower. Similar mutual aid networks are operational in other areas of Atlantic Canada, and are highly effective at helping to reduce losses during fire calls of all sorts.

Just us folks 

He rose to prominence a year ago after his performance on the American TV show Nashville Star propelled him into the spotlight. His rich, mellow voice is heard regularly on country airwaves here and in the US, as his recently released CD One Good Friend ratchets up the charts.

But amid the celebrity spin, George Canyon, is well grounded in his Pictou County, NS, roots—and in fact wore a firefighter’s helmet before his signature cowboy hat, during his time as a firefighter in the Eureka, NS, Volunteer Fire Department.

“I joined to help out in my community… I’d been inlaw enforcement out west and really enjoyed serving the community,” Canyon says. Eureka is a 55-year-old department with approximately 25 members. Canyon was an active member for a year until entering the Nashville Star competition, and continues to be supportive of the department—last fall, he played a benefit concert as a fundraiser.

He misses the regular training and camaraderie, he says. “What short time I spent actively on the department, I was honoured to volunteer my time alongside a great group of people and just enjoyed helping out.

“I was both excited and nervous going to calls; after training you want to be able to apply your skills but at the same time it was a little sickening knowing someone was in danger. To tell the truth I was happy to be called down from actually having to attend because it meant everyone and everything was all right.”

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