Into the fire
Volunteer fire departments risk their lives for the lives of others
You’re sitting at your desk at work on a Wednesday morning, when a loud beeping distracts you from your paperwork.
Looking down at the pager you received when you signed up as a volunteer fire fighter, you realize it’s urgent.
You immediately get up, let the office know you received a call, and leave.
Within minutes, you join a group of firefighters at the station to head to a fire that broke out nearby.
Without even thinking about the dangers you could experience, you haul on your bunker gear, hop on the truck and go straight to the fire.
Hundreds of men and women from around the Trinity-Conception-Placentia region live this reality everyday. They have no idea when the call will come, but they have to be available at a moment’s notice if it does.
Fire chiefs from Harbour Grace, Heart’s Delight-Islington and Placentia spoke with The Compass last week to give some background information into their successes and struggles within their respective departments.
Outside the major centres of the province, men and women volunteer to be firefighters. In cities like St. John’s, they are paid.
Some of the duties that these men and women take part in are fighting fires, motor vehicle accidents and directing traffic, when necessary.
Many of these activities mean putting their lives on the line.
During car accidents, there is always a possibility of a fuel leak or fire, which could lead to an explosion.
Fighting a fire, these volunteers are faced with the possibility of getting burned, inhaling smoke and other serious injuries.
Fire Chief Melvin Harnum of Heart’s Delight-Islington said his group doesn’t think about the repercussions when joining the crew. Some volunteer because it’s a reputable organization, and many just want to help.
Chiefs Wayne Power of Placentia and Ray Verge of Harbour Grace both agree it takes a special kind of person to put on that suit and run into a burning building. “It’s a passion,” Power explained. Verge acknowledged a quote from a longtime firefighter in his department that explained how being a firefighter is not just a volunteer position you can do whenever you want.
“He said, ‘You volunteer to fill out the application to join, everything else is mandatory,’” said Verge.
“We don’t often get anyone join that doesn’t work out ( for no reason),” he added. “It just takes a lot of commitment.”
But commitment is not always enough.
Harnum, who is a regional director for the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services, explained an issue effecting all volunteer departments in the province are members working offshore, in another province or out of town. This is difficult for daytime calls. In Harbour Grace, Fire Chief Ray Verge fits that description. He is an emergency responder in Bull Arm, over an hour away. He told The Compass Aug. 13 about one-third of the members of his brigade work offshore or out of province, while another one-third work out of town.
“I expect the day to come when a call comes in and no one shows up at the station,” Verge said.
In Placentia, there are many members who work in Long Harbour, St. John’s and offshore. Luckily, Power explained, there is a booming amount of work there, keeping some members local.
Harnum’s department can be down to the bare minimum during calls for the same reason.
Verge said his department is actively recruiting members, but all three take applications.
Each department has a way to overcome the struggles they’ve faced.
Harbour Grace changed their constitution to change the allowable age to join, remuneration and keeping things interesting for members.
“Many years we were handcuffed with our recruitment,” Verge said. “And giving guys an incentive of, let’s say, $1000 a year can really help.”
As of this year, the Harbour Grace receives $250 per firefighter.
Harnum and Power explained being visible in the community has been beneficial to recruitment.
“There’s a lot of activity within the fire department,” he said. “We are out in the public eye.”
Power noted, “People see us visible in our community.”
All chiefs also agree there may be a day in the future when the idea of volunteer fire departments may be a thing of the past, suggesting regional and paid department may be not far away.
“As times change, that could happen somewhere down the road,” Power said.
Although the future of some departments is not certain, what is known is those who dedicate their time to firefighting, training and putting their own lives on the line without recognition are arguably the unsung heroes of Trinity-Conception-Placentia.
A firefighter from Harbour Grace preparing to start the hose to put out a vehicle fire.
During a training exercise, firefighters from all the Trinity-South area, which includes Heart’s Delight-Islington, used hydrolic extrication tools to cut the frame of a car.