Everyday Heroes
/ Author: Catherine Miehm 732 Rate this article:
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Everyday Heroes

Volunteer firefighters not only risk their lives every day. They’re busy year-round serving their communities—in more ways than one

By Cathy Miehm

PAUL OSBORNE ADMITS HE WASN’T a serious cyclist. But he didn’t let that stop him from signing up for an event to cycle hundreds of kilometres over hilly terrain. Not when it’s in support of a good cause.

Paul is a volunteer firefighter and Local 911 member who serves his community in Hamilton, Ontario. He is typical of many firefighters across Canada who are busy year-round risking their lives and sacrificing their time to protect and support their communities.

This is particularly true during the Christmas holiday season. Fire departments are often front-and-centre in small towns across Canada organizing local food drives, toy collections, and wish campaigns to support families in need.

But their charitable efforts aren’t limited to December. And for many firefighters, sometimes the causes they take up touch especially close to the heart.

THIS PAST SEPTEMBER, PAUL and some fellow firefighters volunteered to cycle 435 kilometres from Toronto to Ottawa to raise funds and awareness for the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation (CFFF). Despite his cycling inexperience, Paul was determined to be ready to take on the challenge.

“I would ride my bike with my wife, but on paved trails—no cars or anything like that,” says Paul, who serves his fellow CLAC members as Local 911’s president. “For my 50th birthday, I decided I was really going to get into cycling. So I went out and bought myself a road bike and then convinced my buddy to buy one too. He and I would ride together quite frequently.”

But he knew casual cycling with his friend would not be enough to prepare him for the long bike ride to Ottawa. So he and his fellow firefighter cyclists from Hamilton—Aaron Calder, James MacLeod, and Eric Savard—began training in earnest in April, pretty much as soon as the snow cleared.

“We kept building the amount of kilometres we were doing in a stretch,” says Paul. “It’s like any training program—keep increasing the amount of the activity you’re doing to get better at it.”

The full group of 26 firefighters set out from Toronto on September 6, determined to reach their destination in two days. Their route took them through the byways and rolling hills of eastern Ontario, away from heavy traffic.

By the end of the first day, they had cycled over 250 kilometres and made it to Kingston. The next morning, they set out with almost 200 kilometres still to go—and with a lot of hills still ahead of them.

“We had this one hill that everybody was worried about—it was pretty steep,” says Paul. “Once we cleared that, everybody’s mood picked up. And by then, we only had 70 kilometres to go.”

The riders reached their destination almost an hour ahead of schedule.

“There was a lot of stop-and-go as we waited for our escorts to arrive,” says Paul. “But once they did, we were able to zoom through on the John A. McDonald Parkway to the fallen firefighters memorial.”

There, the Hamilton riders presented a cheque for $500 to CFFF Director Wayne Jasper on behalf of the Greater Hamilton Volunteer Firefighters Association. In total, the ride raised about $10,000 for the foundation.

“Next year, we’re going to do the ride from Hamilton to Ottawa,” says Paul. “That will add another 90 kilometres to the journey.”

MEANWHILE, VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTERS IN HAMILTON and across Ontario are thinking about Christmas.

“We’re ramping up right now for the food and toy drives,” says Paul, who adds his colleagues are always happy to do work in the community. “We do this because we really are part of the community. That’s the one thing about volunteer firefighters versus career firefighters who live in one community and drive to another for their shift and then drive home. As volunteers, we live in the community that we serve.

“When we get called out on an emergency, it’s often someone we know. So it hits close to home. Our community outreach is a part of what we do to serve our neighbours. Everyone is in it for the right reasons.”

The same is true in Quinte West and Clarence Rockland, communities where CLAC also represents volunteer firefighters, along with members in Sudbury and Hamilton. Altogether, Locals 911 and 920 represent over 1,300 volunteer firefighters across Ontario. These members always make time for community outreach, despite their busy and often unpredictable schedules.

“When you get into this type of work, you must be passionate about giving back to the community,” says Jeremy Braithwaite, a Local 920 member who has been with the Quinte West volunteer firefighters for about three years.

In Quinte West, about 170 kilometres east of Toronto, the firefighters are as much a part of the Christmas tradition as Santa Claus. It starts in November, when they pick up food donation bags from the Home Hardware in Frankford, Ontario.

“We’ll spend an evening stapling flyers to bags and folding them and placing them in boxes to go on the trucks,” says Jeremy. “Then we’ll do two or three evenings travelling around the township putting those bags and flyers in everyone’s mailboxes.”

Closer to Christmas, the firefighters will be out in their trucks again to do a door-to-door pickup of everyone’s donations. They stop at hundreds of houses.

“We bring Santa around to every home as well, and we usually have a couple of firefighters’ children dress up as elves and hand out candy canes,” says Jeremy. “The streets are lined with families with children all waiting for the fire trucks to come. We know that we could probably do it a little more efficiently, but we feel that our sacrifice is really worth the time that it takes, and the pleasure that it brings to the people of our community.”

VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTERS IN CLARENCE ROCKLAND, an Eastern Ontario community of 25,000, have a different sort of tradition. They set out to make Christmas day special for one child.

It started six years ago, when a young boy with muscular dystrophy was speaking at a firefighter appreciation night. Luc Chayer, the Station 3 district chief, was impressed.

“This young gentleman, who was about 11 or so at the time, gave us a presentation about muscular dystrophy and what Canada is doing to help anybody who has that disease,” Luc recalls. “At the end, I turned to my deputy chief and asked, ‘Is it possible for Station 3 members on Christmas day to show up to this young lad’s residence and give him a parade?’ ”

Local 920 members answered the call, and a new Yuletide tradition was born in Clarence Rockland.

“We showed up on Christmas at noon with the trucks, and we got him on board and made him an honorary firefighter for the day,” says Luc. “And then we went on a parade through Rockland.”

Now, every Christmas, a different deserving child becomes firefighter for a day and leads fire trucks from three stations through the community, sirens blaring. There is never any shortage of volunteers, with as many as 20 firefighters coming out each December 25 to join the parade.

“We couldn’t do this without the help of all the Clarence Rockland Fire Department members,” says Luc.

His firefighters have an unofficial mission to “make sure that we are the friendliest of all emergency services.”

“A lot of times, when firefighters show up at your home, it’s not going to be your best day,” says Luc. “So we want to make sure we are there on the good days, too. We like to help—whether it’s a moment of crisis or a moment of celebration.”

By serving their communities in all capacities, volunteer firefighters exemplify the true spirit of giving, not only during Christmas, but throughout the year.

Honouring the Fallen

The Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation (CFFF) is dedicated to honouring Canada’s fallen firefighters, whether volunteer or paid, industrial, military, urban, rural, wild land, airport, or marine, and to supporting their families.

The objectives of the CFFF include

  • To operate the Canadian Firefighters Annual Memorial Ceremony and update the memorial wall
  • To provide financial subsidies to families of fallen firefighters for transportation to and lodging in Ottawa during the memorial weekend
  • To provide support programs, scholarships, and bursaries for the children and spouses of fallen firefighters who died in the line of duty

The Canadian Firefighters Memorial in Ottawa was completed in 2012. The foundation is now broadening its assistance to the families of fallen firefighters while continuing to honour them at a national ceremony, held each year in September.

To learn more about the CFFF or to make a donation, visit them online at cfff.ca.

Source: Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation

A Long History of Helping

Canadian firefighters have played an integral role for Muscular Dystrophy Canada since 1954. The charity has been supported by more than 600 fire departments and associations across the country since then and currently raises close to $3 million dollars annually—a total of over $70 million since 1954.

Each year, career and volunteer firefighters give their time to organize boot drives, rooftop campouts, car washes, pancake breakfasts, magic shows, Buck-for-Luck campaigns, pub crawls, ladder-a-thons, raffles, and sporting events in support of an estimated 50,000 Canadians with neuromuscular disorders. Through education, support, and media relations, they generate much-needed awareness of muscular dystrophy.

Source: Muscular Dystrophy Canada

Looking for Adventure?

Ontario has hundreds of trails for the novice or avid cyclist, ranging from under a kilometre to the 780-kilometre Waterfront Trail, which runs along the shores of Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence River. In 2017, to coincide with our nation’s 150th birthday, Canada opened the world’s longest bike path, a series of interconnected trails. The Great Trail is a car-free path that began construction in 1992. It is 24,000 kilometres long and runs through 13 provinces and territories. Looking for a great cycling adventure? Visit the greattrail.ca for more information and to explore a map of the trail.

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