Capturng the Courage

By Veronika Janik

They are the unsung heroes we rarely think about. They are the men and women who take time to serve and protect their communities. Of the 12,000 firefighters in Alberta, 9,000 are volunteers whose reward for risking their lives is the gratification of knowing they have selflessly assisted friends and neighbors.

Their commitment lies in the statistics. These men and women spend up to 400 hours a year risking their lives, and make up 85 per cent of Canadian firefighters. Outside large municipalities in Alberta, it is the volunteer firefighters who respond to the calls and look after the citizens.

“These everyday men and women who rush out of Sunday dinners or miss their kids hockey games are truly committed to the public,” says Chairman of Volunteer Firefighters Fundraising, Chad Sartison.

Although municipalities such as Calgary are protected by full-time firefighters, Deputy Chief of the City of Calgary Fire Department Andy Catherwood couldn’t agree more with Sartison.

“The differences between professionals and volunteers are few but it is the inherent risk of life that is the same. They are regular people and they have businesses that they drop at a moments notice,” says Catherwood.

“They’re there 24-7 and we salute them for their invaluable service,” he adds.

They respond to a variety of calls that range from full-fledged house fires, head-on collisions and grass fires, to the most dangerous task of them all–saving drowning puppies.

“We respond to just about everything,” says Steve Teshima, who works full time as a fire alarm inspector and network programmer.

“It is time consuming and it does have an impact on work,” he adds.

“I mean getting up at 3 a.m. and going to fight a fire for five hours and then going straight to work can be extremely difficult.”

This grueling task is one that many would not be overly willing to do.

However, these brave citizens, some of whom have volunteered for over 27 years, continue to wake up every morning, knowing that their duties may come calling at any moment.

“When you go out, you never know what to expect,” says Black Diamond volunteer firefighter Ron Caumartin.

“At first I figured I could be helpful in the community and it just grows on you after that,” he adds.

Although these volunteers receive no money for their services, they do receive the same extensive training as professional firefighters. Consequently, they need proper clothing and equipment in order to do their jobs as safely and effectively as possible.

However, many local fire departments have had to make due with low budgets and a lack of new and recent equipment.

While more and more equipment is necessary, the economic drain in funding does not seem to be improving any time soon.

“With such low funds, small towns would not be able to function without these volunteers,” says Chief of the Turner Valley Fire Department Bonnie Smith.

Due to their indispensability, a number of local businesses have created a calendar project called “The Fire Within” in order to support these dedicated individuals.

This 2005-2006 calendar features volunteer firefighters from several rural towns in Alberta and was created in order to raise funds for better equipment and more extensive training.

“The partnership we share with the volunteer firefighters is absolutely essential in delivering emergency service throughout the province, and that’s why we support this calendar project one hundred percent,” informs Catherwood.

The calendar not only features images of volunteer firefighters, but provides information about each individual.

According to Sartison, the aim was to steer far away from a “hotstuff” calendar and make it as tasteful as possible. This way, the public can become aware of how committed these individuals truly are, and realize they are regular individuals doing extraordinary deeds.

In addition to funds raised for the fire departments, the calendar will also give a portion of its proceeds to the Boys and Girls Club of Calgary.

“They are our guardian angels at our summer camps and on our field trips to Kananaskis, and it is reassuring to know that a dedicated group of men and women are there for us 24-7,” says representative of the Boys and Girls Club, Jolayne Davidson.

Nonetheless, with all this praise and recent public support, these courageous souls remain humble and know they are there for one reason only–to protect their fellow citizens.

“When we’re referred to as heroes, we have to take it in stride and keep on going,” says Teshima.

“We come, we do our jobs, we leave and that’s it. It’s just like any other job.”

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