New Saanich firefighters Bonnie Fiala and Phil Reaume practice their rope work behind the No. 2 Firehall on Elk Lake Drive. The two are in their sixth and final week of training before they join the Saanich Fire Department.

All fired up: Saanich Fire brings in eight new recruits

Saanich Fire Department to swear in first two women fire fighters

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.

 

Just Posted

Nearly a dozen coonhound puppies and their mother to reunite at Saanich park

Dogs’ former foster family initiated one-year reunion plans

Trio brings roller skating fever to Greater Victoria

Roller Skate Victoria offers workshops, summer camps and more

Motorcylist ticketed for excessive speed, bike impounded by Saanich Police

The 22-year-old was issued two tickets – one for a bent licence plate

Concrete beams for McKenzie interchange set for installation this weekend

No lane closures expected during weekend work, says ministry

Government Street to be transformed into ‘people-priority’ zone

Victoria city council voted to limit traffic in the area by 2022

Rich the Vegan scoots across Canada for the animals

Rich Adams is riding his push scooter across Canada to bring awareness to the dog meat trade in Asia

POLL: Do you carry reusable shopping bags?

While a court ruling determined the City of Victoria’s plastic bag ban… Continue reading

Greater Victoria wanted list for the week of July 16

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Body, burning truck found near northern B.C. town

RCMP unsure if the two separate discoveries are related

Couple found dead along northern B.C. highway in double homicide

Woman from the U.S. and man from Australia found dead near Liard Hot Springs

UPDATE: West Kelowna fawn euthanized, not claimed by sanctuary

Gilbert the deer has been euthanized after a suitable home was not found in time

BC Wildfire Service warns wet weather no reason to be complacent

Fire risk currently low for much of B.C. compared to same time over last two years.

Bank of Canada lowers qualifying rate used in mortgage stress tests

Home sales softened last year after the federal government introduced new stress test rules for uninsured mortgages

Port Hardy RCMP cleared in arrest that left man with broken ribs, punctured lung: IIO

The IIO noted the matter will not be referred to crown counsel for consideration of charges.

Most Read