I belong to a “firefighter family”. In more ways than one.
For as long as I can remember, my dad has been a volunteer firefighter in Howick Township. As soon as he was old enough, my brother joined our dad for a few years before heading out west. Once he returned home from Alberta, he settled in Brussels, and is now a volunteer firefighter there.
For quite a number of years Jeff’s brother Kevin was a volunteer firefighter as well, first in Howick township, then for the town of Wingham. He stepped down earlier this year. All of the stories convinced Jeff he would like to try it as well, and he has been a volunteer firefighter for the town of Goderich since 2005. For a number of years I had 4 firefighters in the family, all at different departments within our county. A “volunteer” firefighter is one who has a full time job, and wears a pager that could, and does, go off at any time of the day or night. They need to have flexible employers who understand that they may need to leave work at anytime, with no notice, and be gone anywhere from 5 minutes to the whole day. This could happen every day for a week, or they could go 3 months with this not happening at all. They are not full time firefighters who stay at the firehall for 8 hrs waiting to get calls. They don’t eat or sleep there. They go about their daily lives, and respond to calls as they come in. In this area, it isn’t just fires that they respond to. In fact, more often than not, it has nothing to do with an actual fire. It could be an auto accident. It could be a request to assist the Paramedics on their calls. It could be an automatic alarm going off at a business. It could be any number of other things, besides a fire. Or, it could be a fire. A grass fire. A barn fire. A house fire. A car fire. A lawnmower fire. A shed fire. An outhouse fire. You name it. They’ve had them all.
Growing up in Gorrie, we lived closest to the fire department compared to the other firefighter families. My dad could get there on foot faster than the rest of them could by car. Our house was on the direct route to the fire dept, and if dad wasn’t at home when the pager went off, we wouldn’t know there was a call until all the cars began racing by our house, green lights flashing. Quite often there would be a game of road hockey or baseball, or something going on, and we would very quickly need to move out of the way. We could see the fire hall from our backyard, and could see them all running into the hall and then see the trucks rushing out. The fire department that my dad is a part of announces where they are headed to over their pagers as soon as they go off, so if we were with my dad at that point, we knew exactly where he was headed and could make a pretty good guess as to how long he would be gone.
The departments that both my brother and brother in law were a part of operate in similar ways, although Wingham has a town wide siren, announcing to the town that the firetrucks are going out, so everyone should be aware. The department my husband is a part of does not announce their calls over their pagers right away, and does not have a town wide siren.
So what’s it like to be a part of a family with so many firefighters? When I was a child it was mostly inconvenient. Anyone who has a firefighter in their family knows that those pagers always seem to go off at meal time, during family get togethers, as you are on your way out the door, and of course, in the middle of the night, waking everyone up. As a child, in my house, the middle of the night calls always provided a little bit of humour, at least initially, because my dad could never seem to make it downstairs and out the door in the dark without banging into or knocking over something, cursing the whole way out.
There’s always the chance that family member could miss your birthday party, your kid’s birthday party, a school concert, a wedding, Christmas, you name it. Guaranteed that if you have plans that require your husband to watch your children so you can go out, his pager will go off. There are no “days off”.
When we became teenagers, having our dad as a firefighter took on new meaning, for all of us. Now we understood what it meant, the risks he was taking, and what could happen, although living where we do, we were fortunate in a sense that there were rarely any big fires that required the firemen to run into burning buildings searching for people…if anything they were trying to get animals out of barns. I think it was actually more scary for my dad to be a fireman during our teenage years, and for my mom too, because of all the auto accidents they responded to…and quite often, in our area, those auto accidents involved local youth.
Mike and I were both quite lucky in that neither one of us were never a part of any auto accidents that required the ambulance or fire department, but we both have had friends that weren’t so lucky. There was one that my dad will never forget that involved 2 carloads of teenagers that had just left the same party I was at. I was in grade 9. That accident was a fatal one, and knowing all involved, in cars that drove right past the town I lived in, it could have easily been me in either of those cars had I have decided to take a ride home from the party. My dad had a sense of panic for awhile at the scene, not sure of where I was, or was supposed to be, wondering if maybe I HAD been in one of the cars and had been thrown out, as many of the others were.
There was another fatal accident we all remember very well, where the older brother of a friend of mine was killed. I was 16, he was 18. My dad was on the scene and was with him in his last moments and after the fact, saw his parents almost daily, living in the small town that we did. Having a firefighter in your family at this stage in life meant that we were usually the first to know who was involved, and what their conditions were. I’ll never forget the morning my mom woke me up to tell me that 2 of my good friends had been killed in a car accident the night before. I was 17, they were both 19. I can still see myself sitting up in bed, and see my mom standing in the doorway – not sure how to break the news. . The other thing about it is that we usually had the facts, as our dad had been there, and then we had to listen to all the rumours and stories that always come, from people that weren’t there. I remember becoming furious with a close friend in the days after the last accident I mentioned above, for stating things about the circumstances that I knew were not true. That was back in highschool, and it turns out the rumour mill doesn’t change or go away as you get older.
Now that I am older, and my husband is a firefighter in the town we live in – some things are the same as when I was a child. The pager still goes off at the most inconvenient times, and ignoring it is still not an option. There are still times in the middle of the night, when Jeff now bangs into things, knocks things over, and curses his way down the stairs and out the door. I still giggle. I am still one of the first to know what happened and there are still people who repeat rumors that are not true or think they know the story or the cause when really they have no idea.
But now, along with being the daughter and sister of a firefighter, I’m also the wife of a firefighter.
I’m still lucky in that there haven’t been that many major fires that require the firemen to run into burning buildings searching for people. But it does happen. In January there was a major fire in the neighbouring town that my husband assisted at. It happened to be very close to where I work, and I could see it as I was driving into town. Knowing my husband was somewhere in that big, black cloud of smoke and tower of angry flames reaching up into the sky was unsettling. Usually he goes off on a call, and then comes back later…in this case he was right across the road and I could see exactly what was going on – I’m not used to that. The Goderich firefighters wear black coats, while the Clinton coats are yellow. I would see a black coat disappear into the flames and smoke and wonder where he was going, if he was safe. I saw Jeff high above everything else, at the top of a 75 foot aerial ladder, spraying water on the fire below. And then, thankfully, I had to go to another town. But yeah, it was him I thought about all day.
People ask me how I handle it – Jeff being a firefighter. My little brother being a firefighter. My dad being a firefighter. Does my heart jump every time his pager goes off? Do I cringe? No…honestly, I usually curse it. I guess because, as I said, 99% of the time, the boys in my family are not in immediate danger, because of the area in which we live, and the calls these departments respond to. Yes, the chance is always there. And yes, men from these departments have been rushed to hospital. When I was little one of the men on my Dad’s department sustained a serious injury while setting off holiday fireworks. Others have suffered smoke inhalation or minor cuts and bruises. My father must have an angel permanently sitting on his shoulder, some of the experiences and situations he has walked away from, too numerous to mention here. And those are just the ones I know about. Last year my husband and another firefighter were unknowingly exposed to a serious contagious illness and the local health unit contacted them at home to recommend they take appropriate measures to protect themselves, and their families.
But I don’t really think about that, or the possibility of that happening. Maybe because I have grown up with it all my life.
What I think about when people ask me how I handle them being firefighters is the untold stories and effects, the ones you don’t usually hear about, the ones you don’t know about, unless you have a firefighter in your family.
It’s a job that has forced my parents to sit me down, look me in the eye, and tell me, more than once, that a friend, or the sibling of a friend, had just been killed in a car accident. Something that Jeff is already dreading when our kids are older.
It’s a job that has forced my father to break the news to people he has known for years, that their child, a child my dad had known his whole life, didn’t make it. More than once. And answer them when they ask "did they suffer?"
It’s a job that has put both my father and my brother in law face to face with people they knew, and watched them die.
A job that has taken my younger brother to the funeral home to mourn the loss of a child he knew. A job that has taken all the men in my family to the funeral home in their dress uniforms, countless times.
A job that has taken all four of the men in my family to home grown meth labs…which, when mixed with fire, are unbelievably deadly.
A job which has a grown man crawl into a car and hold someone’s hand and tell them they are going to be just fine while they are being cut out of the vehicle, while they are drifting in and out of consciousness, while they are hysterical, while their bones are breaking or broken, their face is smashed up, while their body is bleeding. It’s a job where grown men crawl into the car, hold someone’s hand and tell them they are going to be just fine, as they take their last breaths…when that firefighter knows right well that they are not going to survive and are fighting back tears themselves.
It’s a job that makes grown men cry like babies. Keeps them up at night. Gives them nightmares. A job where they see things the majority of us can’t even begin to, and don’t want to, imagine or comprehend. Where it doesn’t go away. They remember an event that happened 10 years ago, as if it happened yesterday. They remember the exact location, the smells, what the weather was, the song on the radio, and the look in the other person’s eyes. The screams, the cries and the shock. They never, ever forget and sometimes, the oddest, most random thing, will bring it all back, without warning.
But it’s also a job that brings comraderie….life long friends. The guys on the department are the only ones who really understand, who really get it, and can really empathize with how and what you are feeling. These guys are willing to die for you, and have your life in their hands each time you get in that truck. Guys who will never, ever, leave one of their own behind. Guys who you can call at 2am, crying, and they “get it” and will be of more help than anyone else. Guys who can show up at eachother’s houses without calling and say “do you have a minute?” and the other just knows. Minutes turn into hours of conversation. Debriefing. Again, with no warning, sometimes months or even years later. But they get it, they understand like no one else does, how necessary that is.
I have so much respect for the guys on Jeff’s department. Now that I am the wife, I understand in a way different than I did as the daughter. I know those guys will do absolutely anything to keep my husband, the father of my children, safe. They love him like a brother, and they have all been there for him, both on the scene, and in the aftermath, in ways I could never be. There are things he can’t tell me; things I don’t want to hear or know, and visions he refuses to put in my head. But those guys were there, right beside him. They see the same things, hear the same things, witness the same shock, grief and loss. They all interpret it in different ways, but they all understand. I owe those boys in ways I can never repay. All the wives do. We know that as those trucks go racing out of town, sirens wailing, that no matter what happens, they are a family, and they will look after eachother. All of the firefighter partners and spouses are connected too. We all understand how the others feel. It takes some getting used to. The hours. The unknowns. The fear. The inconvenience. It takes some adjustment. And it takes a lot of patience. The firemen on the departments I have had the privilege of being connected to treat the families really well. They have cooked us breakfast at the hall for Mothers Day or taken us out for brunch. They plan a “kids fun day” for their own kids. They formally recognize the wives at events. They go out of their way to be nice to us at the various functions we are at together, and they look after us. Many of Jeff’s fellow firefighters are also his good friends, and I consider many of them to be like big brothers to me. Growing up, many of my dad’s fellow firefighters treated me like their daughter too. We are connected. Like a family. We understand some things not many others do.
And, if anything ever does happen, we all grieve. Together, like a family. Maybe I wasn’t the wife, daughter, or sister that was directly affected, but it so easily could have been…or could be someday…and you really get that. When something does happen, you really are forced to see how easily it could have been your life turned upside down in the blink of an eye. Being a part of this kind of family, you truly truly empathize, your heart truly aches, and you shed real tears when you hear about the serious injury or death of a police officer, paramedic or firefighter…because you know how easily it could have been you getting that phone call…that knock on the door. In this area it doesn’t happen often, but it doesn’t need to. It only takes one call, one time.
I am a wife, a daughter, and a sister of a firefighter, and I thank three fire departments every day, for taking care of the men in my life.
It’s a job that can make you so proud, and so hopeful, and so energized. Miracles happen everyday, and as firefighters, they can play a role in making those miracles happen. They help people walk away from car accidents. They perform CPR to bring someone back to life. And it works. They rescue people, pets and livestock, from fires. They save homes. And barns. They save livelihoods, they save lives. It’s a job that brings them an adrenaline rush, every time the pager goes off.
It’s a job not just anyone can do. But when it’s you that needs them, there are more than 20 men in this town, and most small towns, that drop anything and everything they are doing to come to your aid. Not everyone can do what they do, and when you need them, when you have been through something that requires the assistance of your local fire department you will understand how special the men and women that risk their lives for you, are.
When you see a fireman’s breakfast, stop in. When you see the firemen collecting money in the MD toll, or see them in a parade, or at community events, consider thanking them for all they do.
Because whether it’s an outhouse fire, an overturned van of wormpickers that has spread thousands of worms all over the highway, a fatal car accident, a barn fire, or…who knows what else…they will be there. They will drop everything, risk a fight with their wives, leave their child’s dance recital or gold medal game, go for hours on no sleep, risk their jobs…risk their lives…for people they don’t even know.
Here is a book every firefighter should have. It's written by a long time Canadian volunteer firefighter. I bought it for my dad, brother and husband for Christmas. None of them are "readers" but all of them read, and loved, this book.
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