All for the community
Being a firefighter isn’t always about charging into a burning building. According to Bedford Chief Ralph Gilman, a big part of the job is staying connected with the community.
“We do about 40 activities a year for the town,” Gilman said.
“If there’s an activity, there’s usually someone from the Bedford Fire Department going to it.”
Over the weekend the crew participated in a fundraiser to help purchase a wheelchair for someone in Farnham. For the past three years, they have participated in a bicycle rally to raise money for cancer. Just recently, members of the department climbed a tower in Montreal in the name of muscular dystrophy.
In terms of fire services, Gilman said Bedford is well known for jaws-of-life interventions as well as off-road and water rescues. The department is also one of the few that has the equipment required for large animal rescue. They are currently working on a project (along with Saint Armand, Sutton and Cowansville) with their American counterparts for hazardous waste interventions.
“They have equipment we haven’t even heard of,” Gilman said, referring to the Vermont department.
While firefighting is still a male-dominated profession, Gilman pointed out that times are changing.
“We have the most women of any department,” he said, comparing Bedford to others in the Townships.
Of the 32-member team, four are women; a fifth is currently in training, he added.
“We say guys, even though she is one of them,” Gilman said, referring to a trusted department member, adding that she is usually the first off the truck.
Gilman said one of the biggest challenges faced by the department these days isn’t emergency calls; it’s recruitment, he said.
“We have no applications.” Becoming a firefighter requires 350 hours of training and three provincial exams.
It takes about two years to get the certification, Gilman said, and that is only for the base training.
The department members are constantly upgrading.
“Wednesday to Friday, we’ve got four firemen doing a special training for confined space rescues,” said Gilman.
“You have to keep your training up to date,” commented Gilman. Each year requires 25 hours of regular ‘maintenance’ training, and then any specialties also require updating.
“Things are changing all the time,” Gilman said. He used the example of jaws-of-life interventions. “Now there are more electric cars,” he said, explaining that firefighters need to know how to approach a rescue with that type of vehicle.
“It never ends. We’re trying to keep our finger in the pie so we know what’s going on,” Gilman said, which requires a substantial commitment to the department.
“We meet with the family,” Gilman said, before taking on a new recruit. It is important that family members recognize their loved one will be in training every Tuesday or Wednesday night for two years. They will then have to respond to around 150 calls per year, and there are at least 40 different events and activities they will be expected to attend.
“They are expected to be available almost every weekend,” Gilman said. Not everyone is willing to accept a schedule like that, and neither are many spouses and family members.
It costs close to $15,000 to train a firefighter, according to Gilman, so the department doesn’t take on a new recruit without making sure the job is a good fit.
The certification fees to the provincial government are close to $4,000. A fire suit costs $2,500. Boots and gloves are $500 each, and then there are helmets and other accoutrements to consider.
“They need to keep the firefighters they get,” Gilman said, referring to smaller municipalities where recruitment is low.
“Treat us right,” he joked.
Part of the problem is that there are few employment opportunities in small towns. “In Bedford, we still have factories,” he said, but even so there are members coming to work for the department from St. Jean.
While some towns have a rule where a department member needs to be a maximum of five minutes from the station, Gilman said if that were the case in Bedford, he would lose half the department.
So with all the training and time commitments required, what’s the profile of a prospective firefighter?
“Someone who is communityminded,” Gilman replied.
“You’re protecting your friends, your neighbours, your kids.”
Last weekend members were representing the department in Montreal, showing off their lawn tractor racing skills at a monster truck rally. In the next few weeks there are five or six different community fundraisers happening, Gilman said.
“That’s all volunteer,” he said, explaining that for many of the department members, those events are a part of the job that they enjoy. “We have fun being here,” commented Gilman.
“When they closed the police forces in all these towns, firemen picked up the slack.”
Gilman said there are running jokes about some of the less urgent calls the department gets like a raccoon hit by a car, or the stereotypical cat stuck up a tree.
“We go because there’s nobody else to go. And we’re going to keep doing it, because that’s what we do,” he said.