Volunteer firefighters charge into the fire

Volunteer departments risk their lives for the lives of others

Melissa Jenkins melissa.jenkins@tc.tc
Published on August 21, 2014

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 firefighter, 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 every day. 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 quotd 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 that an issue affecting all volunteer departments in the province is having members working offshore, in another province or out of town.

This makes it difficult to respond to daytime calls.

In Harbour Grace, Verge fits that description. He is an emergency responder in Bull Arm, over an hour away. He told The Compass on Aug. 13 that 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 it has faced.

Harbour Grace altered their constitution to change the allowable age to join, the remuneration, and to keep things interesting for members.

"Many years we were handcuffed with our recruitment," Verge said. "And giving guys an incentive of, let's say, $1,000 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 departments 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.




About the volunteer fire departments:

° The Harbour Grace brigade had 35 members, but can take up to 40;

° Heart's Delight-Islington has 31 members;

° There are 29 members in Placentia, with one vacancy;

° Most departments plan and organize the Santa Claus parades in their communities;

° Departments all over the region rely on neighbouring communities for assistance in many situations;

° All volunteer members must receive formal training, like paid firefighters;

° Placentia and Heart's Delight-Islington currently have all-male fire departments;

° Harbour Grace, Heart's Delight-Islington and Placentia have hydrolic extrication tools, also know as the jaws of life;

° Fire chiefs Ray Verge, Melvin Harnum and Wayne Power have more than 70 years experience with volunteer fire departments between them.