Fighting fires is a labor of love for the 23 members of Almonte’s volunteer fire department. “If you think out logically all that is involved,” says Dave Drummond, “a man must be crazy to be a volunteer firefighter.” It is a craziness that affects a lot of people and the public can thank their lucky stars it does.
Lanark County has 13 fire departments, all staffed by volunteers. The only full-time men in the whole operation are in Smiths Falls, where the chief is coordinator for the county’s Mutual Aid program. Lanark’s situation can be repeated over and over again in counties all across the district. “It gets in your blood,” says Art Brown, who works in Ottawa, but still has the highest percentage turnout for fire calls.
“I guess it starts when you’re a child,” says Keith Blakley, who with 26 years is the longest-serving member of the present force. “Every child has the ambition to be a firefighter at some point in his life. My father served as a firefighter for 52 years, starting before I was born,” Keith said. Children are always welcome around the fire hall, either individually or in groups, although many of the younger ones are more interested in climbing on the trucks as toys than in learning about the ways of a fire department.
It certainly isn’t the money that attracts volunteer fire fighters The $5.62 they get each time they answer a roll call hardly pays for the clothes they will ruin in a year. That money is taxable too. Fire departments are fighting that ruling. So far the province is prepared to exempt the payments, but there is no concession yet from the federal revenue department. The chief gets an additional $1,000 a year, the deputy-chief $800 and the captain and two lieutenants $200. Put it all together and Almonte gets first-class fire protection for a little more than $20,000 a year about what it costs the Ottawa Fire Department in salary for one man.
The Almonte department also serves Ramsay Township, for which the township pays an annual $5000 standby fee plus $250 per call. The township also provides three men on the force. Last year there were more calls in Ramsay Township than in Almonte. Twenty of the 34 fires answered were in the township. There were 59 roll calls in total, including the monthly meetings and the summer training sessions, with an 87 per cent turnout.
Ross Stanley has been a member of the force for 23 years and chief for the past five, he runs his own sanitation and cartage business but like all the volunteers, he is ready to drop everything and head for the fire hall when the siren blows. He is proud of the fire hall, built in 1965 as a centennial project, and he is proud too of the dedication of his men.
Because of the expertise of the volunteers, Almonte has equipment many big forces still lack. And it didn’t have to pay the kind of prices big city forces pay either. The latest acquisitions 1972 International van that had been in an accident. Now it is in showroom condition and fitted out with saws, axes, asbestos gloves, airpacks. stretchers, resuscitator, and other emergency gear, plus a locker for each man.
It was a similar story with the aerial ladder until recently the only one in the county. It is 1947 vintage, was bought from Hamilton for about $5,500, and restored to like-new condition. A new one would cost more than $150,000. Bill Lowry is a partner in a farm machinery dealership and machine shop. He has become so expert at rebuilding fire trucks he has started to build them for other municipalities as part of his business.
The oldest truck still in operation is a 1934 General Motors pumper. Until recently there was a 1927 ladder truck, but that is now in the Museum of Science and Technology. Stanley says most of the training is done right at the fire hall. New men come on for six months probation before they become part of the permanent force.
“We can’t do anything right, you know ,” the chief says with a smile “We get complaints that we drive too fast, but when we arrive at the fire we’re often greeted with ‘What the hell kept you?’
“Our average response time is about three minutes. We think that is pretty good, but a minute is a long time when you are watching your house burn,” he added. Ironically, the siren is the one thing about the fire hall that Stanley doesn’t like. He would prefer an electronic pagette system. He says the siren has two drawbacks. If there is a wind, any of the volunteers upwind from the fire hall may not hear it. It also draws crowds of spectators who sometimes impede the firefighters.
The link between the fire hall and the public is Curley and Florrie Ford, caretakers at the nearby town hall. They take the fire calls, sound the siren and direct the trucks to the fire. “We can tell when we pull into the yard whether the fire is in town or in the country,” Lowry explained. “If Curley has opened the door for the tanker, we know it is in the country.”
The Fords also find themselves acting as babysitters at times. If a volunteer’s wife is out when he gets the call and he has small children, he’ll deposit them with Curley and Florrie while he goes off to fight the fire. Fire hydrants provide the water for fighting fires in the town, but tankers arc needed in the township.
There is a 1,300-gallon tanker in the fire hall and a 6,300 gallon tank trailer out in the township, donated by Drummond Brothers Building Movers. There is a camaraderie among the volunteers that would be the envy of any service club. Apart from the monthly meeting, the training sessions and the fire calls, there is no requirement for them to be at the fire hall. But most nights, there will be several of them around the place working on equipment, keeping the place in order, and expanding their knowledge of their dangerous part-time occupation.
“Our trouble is we don’t have enough fires, “said Lowry. “It would he easier to keep in top shape if we got called out more often.” The volunteers raise money to supplement their budget by providing the bar at community functions, and by putting on a pancake breakfast every August. In 1978 they fed more than 900 people.
The Ottawa Journal
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
05 Aug 1978, Sat • Page 2
The Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
09 Nov 1978, Thu • Page 3