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New in Town: Bradford West Gwillimbury firefighters do more than get cats out of trees

New in Town is a behind-the-scenes look at businesses and clubs in Bradford West Gwillimbury from the perspective of a person new to town. Want to be featured? Email [email protected].

It all started with the big pair of boots.

I stepped into them before pulling up hip wader-like pants and placing their straps over my shoulders.

I slid my arms into a heavy jacket with a tough exterior, strapped a helmet on, and put my hands into thick gloves.

As I walked in the heavy gear, I felt like an astronaut walking on Earth — bulky and awkward.

But for the firefighters with the Bradford West Gwillimbury Fire and Emergency Services, this is the easy part of their jobs.

“It’s never good when you’re dealing with people in crisis,” said BWG Fire Chief Kevin Gallant. “Some of the things you see, especially in a small community… A lot of these guys working on these trucks grew up around here. They might know some of the people who are sick or injured. It can be rough.”

I recently got a tour of the 30-year-old Melbourne Drive fire station, which is home to 18 full-time firefighters, 35 volunteer firefighters, two inspectors, one training officer, two administrative assistants, one chief and one deputy chief.

Fire dispatch is done out of Barrie, but Bradford helps out during big events, such as damaging windstorms, Gallant said.

Of the 1,596 calls the service got last year, about 56 per cent of them were medical related, followed by 11 per cent rescue/vehicle accidents, and 10 per cent false fire calls, according to the fire department’s annual report to BWG council June 19.

Just two per cent of calls last year were for fires or explosions of structures, vehicles or brush.

Among the “significant” fire events last year were two Line 6 houses under construction that caught fire in January, with the fire spreading to other homes due to windy conditions, read the report.

Firefighters faced bitterly cold weather and “chunks of burning debris falling from the sky,” read the report.

Bradford firefighters were also one of the emergency services to be called to the fiery, multiple-vehicle pile up on Highway 400 on Halloween last year, from which three people died.

The crashes caused a massive fireball and countless explosions on Highway 400 between Highways 88 and 89. Bradford firefighters were on scene for 22 hours, according to the report.

As first responders, firefighters are sometimes called heroes, but Gallant said responding to emergencies is “all part of our job.”

“There are a lot of people who are heroes… police officers, teachers… We don’t call ourselves that,” he said. “Every day, you never know what’s going to happen. We try to do our best under difficult situations.”

Since medical calls are the majority, they must be prepared to deal with everything from drug overdoses, to childbirth, to heart attacks.

BWG full-time firefighter Chris Langford has his paramedics training.

The standard for firefighters, he said, is to have CPR and First Aid training, but it is becoming more common for them to take additional emergency first responder courses to boost their abilities and resumes, he said.

“I wanted to increase my training and skill set. It gave me confidence on medical calls,” he said.

Langford’s dad was a paramedic, and he once went on a ride-along with him.

“It seemed natural to throw on a uniform and do that job,” he said. “I remember being on the truck all excited. He put down the window and said, ‘I still like the way the siren sounds.’ There’s always going to be that little bit of adrenaline. It’s pretty unique.”

As a firefighter in BWG who grew up there, Langford said he has had to respond to some difficult calls, including when his grandma passed away.

“It ended up being a good thing,” he said. “When you work in this industry … you’re going to respond to people you know, neighbours and friends. You want to get to those calls to help them.”

Back at the BWG fire station, I am still geared up in a firefighter’s uniform, and Langford takes me up in the service’s aerial platform.

I climb up a ladder attached to the side of a fire truck, then walk along the top of the truck on the ladder’s wide bars to get to the platform. We click giant carabiners attached to us into the platform for safety before Langford takes us up the full 30 metres.

The view is stunning — you can see across huge sections of town.

Along with the one aerial platform, the BWG fire service has six trucks, two pumpers, two tankers, and one rescue truck.

The community is growing, and the fire service needs to expand to meet that, Gallant said.

A fire masterplan was presented to BWG council in 2013, which recommended increasing the number of full-time firefighters to 20, he said.

The fire service recruits once a year. Last September it had its biggest recruitment class ever of 11 people, Gallant said, adding ⅓ of the service’s volunteer force had to be replaced last year.

Earlier this month, BWG council gave the go-ahead to start the process of building a $14-million fire station and operations centre, and a second fire station in Bond Head is in the works.

“We’re crammed for space here,” said Kevin Meyers, BWG Fire acting captain and Bradford Profession Firefighters Association vice-president.

BWG firefighters recently switched to a 24-hour shift. An average day begins with a communication exchange between the night crew and the people starting their shifts, he said.

They are informed of any equipment that is broken and roads that are closed.

They set up their gear, make sure the trucks have gas and the equipment is running fine, he said.

Then, if there are no calls, they do some training, participate in public education events at schools and local organizations, and knock on doors to educate people about smoke detectors, he said.

The firefighters typically eat their dinners together, and they often spend the evenings doing maintenance around the station, such as mowing the grass, or working out in the gym area in the garage.

They never know exactly what their days will look like, and sometimes the stereotype of firefighters being called to get a cat out of a tree ends up being true, Meyers said.

“From a tree, from an attic, drains. Cats, dogs, puppies, birds. I’ve pulled dogs out of retention ponds. For some people, their dogs are their children. We’ll go get your dog so we don’t have to go get you (if you go in and get stuck).”

But Meyers said he likes being the community’s go-to for help.

“When people don’t know who to call, they call the fire department. Whether it’s ducklings in sewer grates, or a cat in a tree, or your living room floods, or (there’s) a tree on your roof,” he said. “It’s nice to know people think of you and want your help.”