Dep. Chief Stephen Hanna remembers the ghostly sight of hundreds of books still pulsating red on their shelves in the aftermath of the 1989 Nellie McClung library fire.
In the thick smoke, Hanna – then just a novice Saanich firefighter – could only make out the boots of a figure manning a fire hose in the centre of the smouldering mess.
“There was my captain, standing amongst it all, calmly spraying water,” Hanna says. “That image just stuck with me.”
In the coming months, eight new Saanich Fire Department recruits will likely experience similar moments, now that they’ve completed an intensive six-week training session to join the 120-member department.
The cohort includes five replacements due to retirements and three new recruits –including the department’s first two female firefighters – to serve the diverse 103-kilometre District of Saanich.
“We haven’t had an intake this large since 1971, and a lot of it has to do with attrition,” said Fire Chief Mike Burgess. “We’ve seen a lot of movement in the last five years, I think we’ve had 27 retirements. So our department is quite young now.”
The title of Firefighter is misleading, Hanna says, as only 30 per cent of the department’s 4,100 incident responses last year were directly related to fire.
Car accidents, hazardous material spills, medical and marine emergencies are just some of the calls that require new firefighters to arrive on the job with a small mountain of certification and training.
“A lot of people start this job believing they’re going to go from fire to fire, but what they discover is it’s hours of boredom made up of minutes of sheer terror,” Hanna said. “We should really be called Saanich emergency services.”
Experience and maturity are now significant factors in choosing new recruits as well. This year’s novices range in age from their late-20s to 39-year-old Brian Swanson, who served in both the military and as a Saanich police officer before making the switch to Saanich fire.
“It was pretty close to a year where I was considering the right decision for me and my family,” says Swanson, on a lunch break from rope rescue training at Fire Hall No. 1, behind the municipal hall. “I already had all the requirements from my previous career, but just for simple career enjoyment and lifestyle, it just fit. I’m ecstatic to start. I can’t wipe the smile off my face.”
Heather Jaques, a former flank who twice attended the Rugby World Cup with Canada’s national rugby union team, turned her drive to a different competition last year when she decided to compete against 130 candidates for one of eight spots at Saanich FD.
Jaques, a Saskatchewan native, spent some time in the construction industry before a fire fighter at her gym recommended she look into the field.
“After I retired from rugby, I didn’t really know where to go,” Jaques says. “I’ve always been very team-oriented, physically active, I like working outside, and this kind of hands-on career really appealed to me.”
Whatever stigma may exist about trailblazing in a department full of men is brushed off by Jaques as a relic of a past time.
“We had an open house a few weeks ago, where a bunch of veterans told us how happy they are to see us in the department,” she says.
All firefighters start in fire suppression – two day, two nights, four off – and some can spend the majority of their careers in that role. Once in, firefighters can move into staff development, communications, emergency management, mechanical teams and more, Hanna says.
“It’s really the candidates themselves who raise the bar, they’re all thirsty for the job,” Burgess says.
“Every single one of these applicants is here on their own merit, and the quality of the applicants that come forward makes it that much more difficult for us.”
That process takes place every two years, when Saanich FD’s executive team picks about 100 applicants to complete a series of tests to measure physical fitness, agility and dexterity. Only 25 would-be firefighters are then selected for a two-day ride along before the interview stage. Finally, top candidates are sent for behavioural assessments and health and drug tests.
“Then there’s still no guarantee of a job,” Hanna says. “But this year, we had a commitment from Saanich to hire three new recruits to increase the size of our department. On average, we have two attrition hires per year. Next year, we may not have any. I’m the oldest guy here now and I’m 55.”
One of those successful applicants, Phil Reaume, has spent the better part of seven years working his way up to full-time firefighting. He even moved to Central Saanich just to gain experience on that municipality’s volunteer force while paying the bills at Butchart Gardens.
“I started doing some First Aid work at Butchart and really enjoyed that training, but I always wanted to do more,” Reaume says. “After all this time, you try to remind yourself how hard you worked for it and that anyone would take your spot in a second. It feels great to be here.”
(PHOTOS: Below, Heather Jacques, by Dan Palmer: Above, Bonnie Fiala and Phil Reaume on the ropes.)
Fire prevention week in Canada
– From Fire Prevention Canada
It’s Fire Prevention Week in Canada, Oct. 5 to 11, and statistics reveal 78 per cent of deaths from fire occur in the home, with most of the fatalities taking place between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., while occupants are asleep.
It is critical to develop an escape plan.
During a fire, smoke is black and very thick, making it impossible to see. There is no time for indecision; an entire home can be engulfed within five minutes. Most people are killed by smoke inhalation, not the flame of the fire. The heat of the fire is extremely intense and can kill.
Install smoke alarms on every level. Keep smoke alarms clean and dust-free, checking them monthly. Replace batteries yearly and alarms every 10 years. In order to be able to react quickly to fire, draw a floor plan of your home showing all possible exits from each room. Where possible, plan two exits.
Make certain that everyone understands that if they hear the smoke alarm, or someone shouting “FIRE,” they should immediately evacuate the home. Designate a meeting place outside your home in the event of a fire.
Visit Fire Prevention Canada at fiprecan.ca/home for more information.