Volunteer Fire Fighters

Mar 15, 2013

Did you know there are more volunteer firefighters in Canada than there are full time firefighters? More than 127,000
volunteer firefighters
 provide services, largely in rural and remote areas, across Canada. Most urban and larger fire ­services began as volunteer services – as the population of the area grew, so did the fire services need, and many of those ­volunteers eventually became full-time members. Volunteer departments are an absolute necessity in areas that cannot afford to staff a full-time department.

I have worked in marketing for more than 16 years and it was only recently that I joined the Val Des Monts Fire Department. In fact, a high school friend was one of the reasons why I joined. After hearing stories about rescues, fires, medical emergencies, etc. I was immediately attracted to the exciting lifestyle while meeting my inner needs of wanting to be of help to others. An early indication of this desire to help was discovered in 2008 when I was volunteering as the coordinator of the City of Lachine’s Relief Emergency Center. The ice storm had rendered several electricity grids useless in and around Montreal, forcing families to stay for a few days inside a local high school. I was amazed at how vulnerable we can be, and at how emergency professionals are important anytime, anywhere.

Well, I must admit that I am totally new to this. I joined last spring and I have been in training ever since. It’s a funny feeling, as an established adult, to start from zero to learn new things. I have always been fascinated with fire fighters, police officers and soldiers and now, I am so fortunate to be part of a wonderful team of recruits.

In Quebec, training is somewhat different than other provinces. Even though we are considered volunteer firefighters, we still have to take the same training as full time “big city” fire fighters. It kind of makes sense because the principles are identical regardless of a firefighter’s official status; a fire is a fire and a car accident is a car accident. There is no great difference during an intervention other than the number of (volunteer) firefighters who are on site. I expect that by July I should have my training complete and be ready to fight fires. But on that note, believe me, I am in no rush to enter a burning home. Personally, I want to make sure that I am ready, that I clearly understand the dangers I will be facing when entering a burning building or tackling a car fire. I am not alone in this desire for being well trained for any situation. My fire department and my instructor are very keen on this principle, and they encourage us to take small steps, and to learn from the more experienced fire fighters. On several occasions, I hear the experienced guys comment that they are continually learning new things, even after 10 or more years on the job. I find this reassuring because I know that even though I’m feeling as though I have a lot to learn, my veteran colleagues are also still refining their knowledge related to fires and rescue.

Volunteer firefighters live a different kind of life, and I would like to tip my hat to all the spouses and other family members who have to hear the pagers, radios or phones at 2 or 3 in the morning. Sometimes they can be so disruptive that they wake up the whole family. I strongly believe that the spouses need more recognition. It is somewhat “easy” for us to drop everything and head to the fire station, full of anticipation and adrenaline. The spouses, on the other hand, have to endure the spur-of-the-moment, sudden dislocation of their spouse. They are forced to reorganize school and/or social activities with friends and family, become the sole chauffer for kids’ hockey or soccer games – continually sacrificing their own needs and wants. I’ve left my BBQ’d steak sitting on my plate a few times. We all understand that this responsibility is on a volunteer basis but for us, it’s like a drug. Once we are hooked by the knowledge that your training can help someone through a life-threatening situation, it’s almost impossible to say no (or in my case, stay home). I am pretty sure that some of my colleagues across Canada would agree that they’ve missed out on birthdays, family Christmas dinners or simply catching up on daily chores at home.

I must admit that at the beginning, it was quite the rush to wake up to the sound of the pager, or to be called to an emergency just before sitting down to watch a hockey game. I still get that adrenaline on each call, especially when we know there are people in serious need of help, or knowing that we are being sent to save a home from total destruction.

In 2012 alone, we answered approximately 530 emergency calls in a region of less than 18,000 residents! The high volume of calls ranged from house fires to brush fires to car accidents to medical assistances. I believe that I alone, have participated in more than 200 calls. For me, every call, every person is as important as the last one.

Each year, during the hot, dry days of summer, we receive several calls from concerned residents about outdoor camp fires. These non-emergency calls could be about a family enjoying a tranquil evening of roasting marshmallows to wild bonfire parties. I remember one night in particular. We received a call from 911 saying there was a big bonfire in someone’s back yard that had the potential to turn dangerous. When we arrived at the scene, there were roughly 40 to 60 people, mostly women, partying. The partiers thought we were a group of hired male strippers coming to dance or do a special performance. We managed to extinguish the fire but once the job was done, it was definitely a challenge to convince our team to get back into the truck when they were being showered with attention. Definitely a memorable evening!

As you can imagine, we are in the business of helping those in need, of saving lives, saving someone’s property or protecting the environment, so it is expected that from time to time we will answer calls that are not pleasant. I am often reminded that we were not the instigators or the reason for an accident, a fire, or a situation, and that we must always consider our safety first before leaping into action.

It is the incidents where we feel the most helpless that remain at the forefront of our minds: The person who crashed while driving a snowmobile on a lake, who didn’t survive the sustained injuries in the crash and died later in hospital; the multiple suicide attempts; the young infant that stopped breathing for what seem to be a long period and the parents are completely devastated.

It’s always hard to know that someone you are trying to help might die, and it’s even worse when it is someone you know. I dread the day I will come across an accident or a medical assistance and find that the person I am helping is a member of my family or a close friend.

I find it helpful to keep a picture of my kids right beside my locker. Every time I leave to answer a call, I’m reminded that I have a compelling reason to be careful, that I need to be alert and anticipate every action – for me, for my colleagues, for my family. Sadly enough, despite all the training and constant learning, there are still some who never make it back home to their families.

Although the stories on the news or in the paper do make us sad, do make us face someone’s misfortune, I believe that what I do makes a real difference in someone’s life. That’s what keeps me moving forward, answering that pager, and reminding me to savour every moment of my life.

Marc Caroll Dupuis is a Volunteer Firefighter for the Val Des Monts Fire Department.
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