Firefighters and First Responders in Austin, TBL and Sutton
Someone once said that Firefighters and First Responders are “indispensable foot soldiers here at home”. They risk their lives everyday and manifest the epitome of selflessness in this noble calling.
Ask any firefighter or first responder what it is that calls them to these emergencies and the unanimous response is “I love my community and want to help.” It’s not about the money. Rather, they say that it is about the common mission to ensure safety and health as well as the “comaraderie” that bonds their team.
For outsiders it may seem like a glamourous job to assume. However, in rural parts where volunteers have always been the backbone to communities, being a firefighter or first responder means more than reaching out at the moment of crisis. It is all about dedication, commitment, preparedness, and sacrifice. It’s also about having the courage to keep doing what they do even after witnessing the most horrific situations.
In talking to both Don Mirreault, director of the Tbl/sutton Fire Departments as well as Paul Robitaille, the days when anyone can simply rush to the emergency call to help out are gone. In Quebec, since 2008 when Law 108 was passed, all municipalities must have adequate fire protection. That means that personnel must be trained and have proper certification in order to qualify for service. Municipalities must be prepared to undertake prevention programs and respond to smoke, floods and fire, road accidents, ice and water rescues, handling of dangerous materials and also undertake research to determine the cause of fires. In these parts, saving livestock is also an issue. In Brome Lake, a program was started to help firefighters identify where domestic pets live so that they too can be saved. Firefighters also must ensure that the millions of dollars in equipment is kept in meticulous operating order.
When most volunteers are already employed in full-time jobs, it means that there needs to be an agreement with the employer to be able to leave the workplace when there is an emergency. It also means that many hours of time away from family and other personal responsibilities is a premium. Plans can be interrupted in a blink. When they are on call, they are not permitted to use alcohol or other recreational stimulants.
Even though most municipalities pay for the registration costs of the training programs there are a lot of hours to put in. The basic entry course for a firefighter takes over 300 hours. Additional modules for ladder truck, pump truck, vehicle extrication, forestry rescue, ice rescue, water rescue can require anywhere from 30 to 45 hours extra for each. And then it takes an additional 150 hours to become an officer. Practices and simulations are a major part of the programs. They are undertaken on a routine basis; sometimes bi-weekly, others monthly and others several times yearly. To become a first responder one must take a 45-hour course. To maintain that certification, participants must follow a refresher course every three months. Robitaille started as a volunteer 39 years ago. In 1996 he became director and now heads up a 35-person team as a full-time employee of the municipality of Austin. Some of his 16 first responders double as firefighters. “It wasn’t easy,” explained Robitaille. “It took five years going to school part-time to become properly certified. But I like what I am doing.”
Many Townships municipalities are small and operate on budgets that simply cannot afford their own equipment. That’s why mutual aid agreements are made between those that have equipment and manpower and those that don’t. Distances are an issue when it comes to an emergency. Water resources are not always readily available. Hence the call to other municipalities to come with their pumps and tankers. While Mansonville is custodian of a $50,000 jaws-of- life, Austin has a boat. The towns call upon those services between each other when needed.
Ross Clarkson is working full time for TBL as an officer in the fire department. He says that lot goes on behind the scenes that citizens are not aware of. For instance, we recognize when homes need fire detectors and they can’t afford one. We make sure to give them to the home owners.
Town of Brome Lake
After 42 years of service to the community of Brome Lake, Pierre Laplante hung up his hat as Director of Public Security a year ago. His sense of duty continues as he serves as a volunteer First Responder. In a move to cut administrative costs the two director generals of Sutton and TBL came up with a plan to share the position of Director. Don Mirreault is almost half-way through the two-year trial period of this plan. He is pleased with how well the arrangement is working. “Morale between the two municipalities is way higher that expectation. It’s going so well with the two merged departments. We are training together and our protocols are in sync. It’s been a really nice project.”
Mirreault knew that there would be some challenges but has been surprised that the transition has gone so smoothly. He says that the key to success has been in the delegation of responsibilities. Owner of an electrical company, Mirreault says that he loves his job as director. “Firefighting is my passion. It has become my down time. It’s a lot of fun for me” Adding that his officers all have their specific responsibilities including preparation of all the practices, Mirreault says that the size of the two towns is almost the same and that amazingly each averaged about 300 calls last year.
Officer for the TBL Fire Department, Ross Clarkson, says that each person reacts differently to different situations. “Some handle things better than others. We have our colleagues and families to talk to, the CLSC offers counselling services and we are covered by CSST when we need support in the aftermath of a difficult event that we take care of. “If you don’t talk about it, it will eat you up.”
Being a volunteer fireman affects their families and together they accept it. “When we have to leave a family function or cancel plans it can be upsetting. No matter where we go, there are
specific things that we have to have ready to take with us like our pagers and radios, just in case. It’s all about the mindset. Our personal stuff has to be with us,” said Clarkson. Another aspect is that when they are on call, they are tied to being in town and not away. They are not paid for the time that they are restricted in location or activity. “Our members don’t get paid for being available. There are so many times we have to stick around because there “might” be an emergency.”
Alan Bowbrick is operations manager for TBL’S First Responders. He explained that they usually get more calls than the fire department but tend to fly under the radar a lot more. They are less visible when it comes to responding to emergencies. Sliding into driveways quietly in the middle of the night is not an infrequent activity for first responders.
Although I have back ups, I am officially on the payroll 12 hours per week I am on call 24-hours --a-day, seven-days-a-week. Shuttering at the thought of managing a situation such as Humbolt, Saskatchewan, which is a town with a similar population, Clarkson can’t imagine having to deal with it. He says that he sincerely hopes he would never have to but we do have the manpower and training to handle a mass casualty. The reality is the practice is never the way reality is and there would be a certain level of chaos to manage. “We never really want to ever have to use our training for that.”
In general terms, Bowbrick would like more recruits. With absences owing to illness and vacations we are spread a bit thin but we are ok and are planning more training. They responded to 486 calls last year making it roughly 1.3 interventions per day. “This year we are a little bit down with about 30 to 35 calls monthly, 55 traffic accidents in Brome Lake last year,” remarking that West Brome had 14 accidents that happened between 3 and 5 pm. He wonders why this pattern is showing up and would like to look farther into it. But we don’t do the investigation, he added.” We are all about the immediate intervention and the people involved.”
The longer you are there, you carry baggage. You remember the calls. I have five calls that stick in my head. I don’t dwell on them but the memories are there. I keep doing it because I just want to help my community and stay involved. My team is my other family and so are the firefighters.
The proudest moments come when lives are saved. Happiest moments are when they arrive at the call to find it was a false alarm. ““It’s not a false alarm until we get there and when we find out it is, it is satisfying to know that everything is ok. If we would not respond, it would be terrible if something actually happened!” said veteran firefighter for 30 years, Robert St. Pierre who does double duty between Potton and Austin fire departments.
“We learn to communicate making sure that when the masks and radio are on, we want to make sure that everyone is clear on what is going on, what the situation is, what the plan of action is. When everyone is in an adrenalin rush, it is really important for communication to be concise. We need to be able to read how our partners are reacting to the situation as well. That’s why we speak with codes such as 10-01 (I’m listening) 10 -17 (I’ve just arrived), 10-34 (the ambulance arriving.), explained Robert St. Pierre. He admits that he loves helping the community but also likes the thrill. Always eager to learn more, he spends a lot of time taking new courses. He and a couple of his confreres are heading to Indianapolis where 2500 firefighters from all over North America will be attending the Fire Department Instructor Convention to do special training while demolishing a large area of buildings near the city. He has been to these conventions a couple of times and laments the cost. This one will be ($ 1,500 each) and the funds come out of our personal coffers. He says that he is also looking forward to a few smaller training programs being offered in Vermont. One is about how to deal with the new electric vehicles that would be in accidents.
Dave Cormier is an officer under Robitaille. He works for the town, lives in the town and volunteers for the town and says that the fire department for them is a way of this town’s life. “There is a lot of selfsatisfaction in what we do.” He has been a fireman for 23 years and retired his duties as a first responder a couple of years ago. He admits that dealing with the tough stuff is part of the job. We carry it for the rest of our lives. The interventions with people all around who know the victims makes it even harder because you feel their pain. “I found that the first responders was too much. The courses, the emotional impact, the time away on top of the fires. I have considered going back to it but I not ready to do more at this point and am happy being a firefighter.”
Everyone who crosses the threshold of the Marché Austin knows Brigitte Cyr. She is the manager of the store and is also the officer in charge of the municipality’s first responders. Also qualified as a firefighter, Cyr says that she loves the medical aspect of the interventions that she has been doing since the service was established in 2001. Interestingly, she says that she would never want to be a nurse or doctor, but being a paramedic is perfect for her. She, like all the others who are involved, has a massive drive to help people and her community. Cyr says that about 75 per cent of the calls are for first responders. Robitaille quoted 468 emergency calls last year with only about 11 that were false alarms.
It’s not all work for any of these people. When they are not rescuing, they continue to give back to their communities. They are always present at main events such as Canada Day and Fêtes National, special parades. TBL’S first responders get to Tour de Lac Brome and Brome Fair too. And the TBL Fireman’s Association couples with the First Responders for a massive annual BBQ that targets the needs of the community. Last year over 400 people attended.
As former MNA, Robert Benoit once said, “Thirty-five years since the late Arthur Bryant founded the fire department we find our firefighters and first responders are men and women who voluntarily contribute with generosity, courage and professionalism, to protect our assets and, in an emergency, our health."
TBL First Responders gather together for a formal shot of the current team.
Last summer, after a lifelong career, at his retirement, TBL’S Director of Public Security, Pierre Laplante, handed over the reins to Sutton’s Don Mirreault who now oversees both municipal fire departments. Laplante remains a volunteer for TBL’S first responders.
Dunham-may 2015 The older wood frame structures are often vulnerable to fire. This house in Dunham was razed to the ground as a result of a grass fire that ran away in mere minutes.
Firefighters in Austin were called to deal with a garbage truck that ran into trouble when combustible contents had ignited.
Alan Bowbrick is operations manager for the TBL First Responders and says that even though he is paid for 12 hours to manage the administrative responsibility, he, along with the 31 members of his team are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
TBL firefighters make a point of going to the two elementary schools to teach fire safety to the students. The winner of a contest that they organize gets to be “Fireman for the day”.