Into the fire

Vol­un­teer fire de­part­ments risk their lives for the lives of oth­ers

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - BYMELISSA JENK­INS

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.

Sav­ing lives

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.”

Strug­gles

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.

Over­com­ing dif­fi­cul­ties

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.

Com­pass file pho­tos

A fire­fighter from Har­bour Grace pre­par­ing to start the hose to put out a ve­hi­cle fire.

Com­pass file pho­tos

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.

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