Community & Current Events

The volunteer firefighters of Upper Stewiacke, Nova Scotia

The volunteer firefighters of Upper Stewiacke, Nova Scotia

Photography by Stacey Van Berkel Image by: Photography by Stacey Van Berkel Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

The volunteer firefighters of Upper Stewiacke, Nova Scotia

When my husband's pager goes off in the middle of the night, the house is thrust into panic mode. I wake, the dogs bark and my husband jumps up, grabs his car keys and is gone. As I nervously wait to hear what’s going on, he drives to the fire hall, dons his gear and, with a crew of friends and neighbours, hurtles down the country roads in a fire truck to wherever the fire, accident or medical emergency is. When you live in the sticks like we do, the volunteer fire department is first to show up.

In 2014, the volunteer fire department in Upper Stewiacke, a village of 1,400 in rural Nova Scotia, responded to 47 calls, including some in neighbouring communities. Its firefighters have attended to chimney, grass and structure fires; been first on scene for a possible heart attack; and, when cars have flipped into ditches, cut motorists and passengers from the wreckage. When that pager goes off, day or night, on major holidays or during family celebrations, these citizens, many with day jobs and children, drop what they’re doing and go. And anyone related to a firefighter worries that someone we know is hurt or that the ones we love will be hurt trying to help others.

How to become a volunteer firefighter
Being a volunteer firefighter is a commitment. In addition to front-line volunteers, there are members who help with fundraising and traffic control and act as truck operators. “When people come to me and say they want to become a ‘firefighter,’ I tell them there’s extensive training,” says fire Chief Randy O’Connell. Volunteers join with a three-month probation period. If they want to take the Level 1 firefighter course offered by the county, the department pays the expenses. While the training is the same as for their big-city counterparts, volunteer firefighters don’t get paid for their efforts—they qualify for a yearly $500 tax credit and a free set of licence plates.

Becoming part of the community was the main reason my husband, Ian Marquette, joined the brigade. We moved to Upper Stewiacke wanting to connect with our new neighbours and feel like we were contributing, too. The fire department helped ease our integration into the village community. “When I joined, I had no idea how much fun it would be or that I’d meet such a good bunch of people,” says Ian. “Becoming a volunteer firefighter gave our whole family a social life, which has helped make us truly feel at home here.”

Randy was 22 when he joined the department in 1990, and he became fire chief nine years ago. Randy has put in 40-hour weeks at the fire hall, all while running a beef farm and bringing up three daughters, too. It’s hard work, but he has never regretted taking on the role, even after the most difficult calls, especially those that involve children.

“As a department, there are calls that cover many different levels of emergency; some are small and some are tragic. We sometimes need counselling and debriefing to get through,” he says. But that is the job. “When the pager goes off, we have to move quickly and plan what course of action needs to be taken in order to do what we are there to do.”

Sometimes those calls are responding to their own members’ emergencies. Robin Cleveland, a longtime member and local dairy farmer, says those are often the most difficult, “because they’re one of your own. You have to put emotions aside and tend to the issue.”

But even the worst situation can bring out the best response, says Robin. He recalls fighting a barn blaze at one of the firefighter’s farms that destroyed a winter’s worth of hay as well as the structure. The community responded by donating hay and helping rebuild the barn.

Firefighting runs in the family
In addition to the department’s 45 members, there are seven junior firefighters who train but don’t attend calls. Rebecca Drenth joined the juniors five years ago at age 14 after her family moved to the area. She says it helped with her transition to her new village. “When I graduate university, I’ll be coming back to join the regular fire department because I love doing this,” says Rebecca. “I love being a part of this strong community.”

Carrie Creelman, a registered nurse and one of the department’s medical first responders, says she can’t remember a time when her family wasn’t part of the brigade. Her dad, Stephen Keddy, started the junior brigade, and her twin sister and two brothers are also volunteer firefighters. “When Dad was looking after us and there was a call, he’d drive to wherever it was, and we four kids would sit in the car waiting, with one of the firefighters coming over to check on us every so often,” she says.

The heart of this Nova Scotia community

For most families, being part of the brigade is a family affair. Phyllis Wright-Roberts, a home support provider, mom and grandmother, joined the department to support the community and her husband and son, both firefighters. “I was spending a lot of my time there anyway,” says Phyllis, who uses a week of her vacation time to organize the annual antique tractor pull, one of the department’s biggest fundraisers.

In Upper Stewiacke, the fire hall is where everything happens, from the annual pancake breakfast and maple syrup festival to the firefighters award night. The firemen’s parade, held each August, is the highlight of our social calendar. After the parade, there’s a barbecue and games for the kids in the field next to the fire hall. At night, adults of all ages attend the dance that features a band and a DJ who play everything from The Rankin Family to AC/DC. As the only licensed bar in a 40-kilometre radius, the fire hall is where all our local events—village suppers and weddings, for example—take place. The hall is where Carrie held her bridal shower and wedding in 2013, when she married another volunteer firefighter, Roddy. (“He joined the department because of me,” she says.)

The fire hall is the heart of our community, and our firefighters make sure that Upper Stewiacke is a safer place to call home. Without them, there are people who would have lost their lives, homes or businesses. Like the 90 percent of communities across Canada that are protected by volunteer fire departments, we are fortunate to have so many dedicated locals who are willing to risk everything for friends and neighbours.

Randy puts it quite simply: “Giving back to the community that helped raise us, helping neighbours, friends and family in times of crisis, is what we’re there for.”

Want to give back to your community? Learn out how you can make time for volunteering.

This story was originally titled "Saving Lives in Their Spare Time" in the January 2015 issue.

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Community & Current Events

The volunteer firefighters of Upper Stewiacke, Nova Scotia