Firefighters a great value to the community all year round
By Conan de Vries
A capable and professional fire department is the cornerstone of any community, whether that community is a big city that employs full-time firefighters or a smaller municipality that depends on volunteers to fill the same role.
The neighbouring municipalities of Augusta, Prescott and Edwardsburgh-Cardinal are quite fortunate in that each can boast a first-rate fire department that not only puts out fires and rescues people in all sorts of trouble but is made up of members who freely give of their time to march in parades, support local charities and wow school kids with their big trucks and cool equipment.
Fire Prevention Week, which this year ran from October 9 to 15, is a good time to not only give some thought to fire safety but also thanks to one's local volunteer firefighters, who are at the ready morning, noon and night, willing to drop what they're doing at a second's notice to go and save somebody's house, pull a loved one from a burning building or extract an accident victim from a mangled automobile.
It can be a trying job, but it's vital to the community, and the people who volunteer to do it ought to be commended and those who think they could do it should be encouraged to give it a try, particularly now, as both the Edwardsburgh-Cardinal and Augusta fire departments are looking for new members.
"It's a chance to help your community and to help your neighbours in their time of need," says Edwardsburgh-Cardinal's interim fire chief, Brian Moore.
The selection process begins with an information session, during which potential new recruits are told exactly what they might be getting themselves into and what demands will be made of them were they to end up joining the department. Importantly, it is not only the applicant who attends this meeting, but spouses are encouraged to attend as well.
"It's not just a commitment for you; it's a commitment for the whole family," says Moore.
Edwardsburgh-Cardinal is looking for ten new firefighters, while Augusta is looking for between six and ten new hires. Quite often the initial information session will attract a good number of interested people, but being a firefighter, while noble and often rewarding, is no walk in the park, and about 20 percent of people who attend the introductory session will opt not to let their name stand.
Strength of character, physical conditioning and sometimes a strong stomach are all important qualities for a volunteer firefighter, but just as important is time. Though they get little more than an honorarium at the end of the year, being a volunteer firefighter is, in some ways, a full-time job.
"There is a lot of time involved. People who volunteer have to have a lot of free time," says Augusta's fire chief, Rob Bowman.
The candidates who continue along the hiring process will then go through a physical fitness test, a written exam and a one-on-one interview. Those who make the grade will then begin their training, which is administered either in-house, at the Emergency Services Training Center in Lyndhurst or at the Ontario Fire College in Gravenhurst, often a combination of all three. And training doesn't end when the new recruit finally climbs onto the back of the fire truck.
"We train all the time," says Bowman.
Some people may be under the impression that the demands placed on volunteer firefighters are less than what is expected of a full-time department, but this is not so. While there may be some specialized disciplines for which a big city force has more need and therefore more resources, in every other fire and rescue task, the volunteer force is as competent and capable as their full-time colleagues.
"We're all held to the same standard," says Moore. "Everything is the same."
The work schedule is a little different though. There are no shifts or off-days. The volunteer fire fighter is ready to go at any time, day or night.
"You could be in the middle of Christmas dinner and your pager goes off," says Prescott's fire chief, Barry Moorhouse.
And it's not just fires with which the volunteers must contend. There are medical assist calls, which come in when paramedics need additional manpower or support, and calls to rescue people from all sorts of misadventure, whether it's out on the ice, in a farmer's field, or, frequently, on the highway. Then there are the public assistance-type calls, where people call the fire department for want of any idea as to who else could help.
"We're the catch-all for everything," says Moorhouse. "It's more than just fire calls."
Just last week, the Prescott fire department was called out by an older lady whose toilet would not stop overflowing. It was flooding her house and, says Moorhouse, she just couldn't think of who else to call. So, the firefighters/plumbers responded to her call for help and got the water to stop flowing.
And it's not just toilets. Believe it or not, it really can, sometimes, be a cat.
"We've actually had the proverbial cat-up-a-tree call," says Bowman.
Unfortunately, not all the calls to which the firefighters respond are so easy to smile about later.
"We see things that a lot of people never do," says Bowman.
The stress and emotional strain placed on firefighters is part of the job, but the tragedy and hardship to which they are so frequently exposed can't help but leave its mark. More and more, fire departments are taking steps to address the issue.
"It's something we need to deal with," says Moore.
The United Counties of Leeds and Grenville has a Critical Incident Stress Management team in place to help emergency first-responders, be they police, paramedic or firefighter, better handle the psychological fallout from calls that don't end with a funny story but rather with unpleasant memories.
The adversity, though, is worth it to those who give freely of their time, energy, and often sleep, to help others in need.
"You never enjoy going out on a call; you don't like the things you see, but you do enjoy having done a good job," says Bowman.
Each of the three fire departments in this area attend in the neighbourhood of 150-200 calls a year, and the departments have about 30 to 40 members each, many of whom spend two or three days a week in the fire station. Even when they're not fighting fires, there are things for the members to do, whether it's cleaning up the fire hall, maintaining the vehicles, making sure equipment is in working order, attending meetings or taking part in training sessions. It's a lot of work, but signing up for it is not something any of the 100 or so local firefighters would say they regret.
"Once you get it in your blood, it's hard to get it out," says Bowman.
Information about how to apply to either the Augusta or Edwardsburgh-Cardinal fire departments can be found on their respective township websites - augusta.ca and twpec.ca - and though the Town of Prescott isn't hiring right now, the Prescott Fire Department is in the midst of a major change, too.
It was recently announced that construction would begin in the spring on a brand new and significantly larger fire hall, to be located on the site of the current hall on Henry Street. The new building will ensure that Prescott's excellent fire service has a home to match, one that will better accommodate a modern, advanced fire company like the Prescott Fire Department.
Residents of Prescott, Augusta and Edwardsburgh-Cardinal can count themselves lucky to be living in a community served by three such proficient and professional fire departments, and even if joining one of them isn't in the cards, as being a firefighter isn't for everyone, it's worth considering just how important a role is played in the community by the volunteers who do this dangerous and difficult job.