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OKOTOKIAN: Answering the call

Volunteer firefighters key to rural departments
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The call to the hall can start at an early age.

“I always wanted to do it,” said Lisa Mikkelsen, the volunteer captain of the Longview Fire Hall. “I would watch my dad go out on fire calls. In those days we didn’t have 911, so we had a phone in our house so they would directly call our house.

“I would listen to my dad take the call and he would let me push this button and there would be like an air-horn that would sound around Longview and then he would go. I got to watch him do that a lot.”

Lisa’s father Len Kirk was a deputy chief and her brother Tom Kirk was also on the department.

After getting married and starting her family, Mikkelsen jumped into the volunteer firefighting role in 2007.

“It was after my kids were old enough that I could go on calls,” she said. “I’ve lived in Longview my whole life, we lived in Turner Valley for a couple of years and when I came back my brother talked me into joining. At the time there were female firefighters, but it wasn’t as good as it is now.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

One of the stalwarts of the Priddis Fire Hall, Clay Smitham, also has volunteer firefighting in his blood.

Clay’s father worked out of the old Burby Fire Hall in Foothills County in the early 1990s. As well a number of Smitham’s friends from Red Deer Lake School opted to join the Priddis Fire Department.

Smitham has been a dedicated member of Priddis Fire since April of 1997, serving a variety of roles including 10 years as captain.

“I just don’t have as much responsibility (now) in terms of the managerial aspects of the fire station, but I still do as many calls as I can when I’m home and still go to training when I can,” Smitham said.

Each Wednesday night there’s two hours of training at the Priddis Hall using Foothills Fire Department’s online courses and curriculum.

“We also do our rig checks, check our gear, check our trucks and clean the station as well,” said Smitham, who’s seen improvements in all facets of firefighting over two decades plus. “I think everything is getting better, our gear is getting better, our training is getting better. With the internet and having everything online, we have better access to training material.

“And Foothills County has always been good with supplying us with training, providing us with training.”

From volunteering at Priddis, picking up skills and finding his passion, Smitham found his career as an industrial firefighter EMT – currently working north of Fort McMurray.

“I’m a week on, a week off so it is actually quite beneficial for being a firefighter volunteer as well,” he said. “Because I’m home during the days when I am home and that’s usually the time when we are short on people, of course, because everyone’s working in Calgary.

“Priddis ended up preparing me for my career, which is great, it led into my career. I joined as a volunteer, thinking it was something neat to do and then it turned out being a real passion.”

Helping people in need is the best part of both gigs for Smitham.

“You definitely need to have an understanding family that realizes you made this commitment, you might have some times when you get pulled away,” he said. “But my family has always been really understanding, my wife (Twyla) has always been really understanding with that.

“We actually met at Priddis Fire Department, so she understands better than most wives that you get pulled away. I think most (partners) are happy and they’re understanding and our families are happy that we’re helping the community.”

Not only did he find his passion at the hall, but love as well.

“She joined in 2000,” Smitham said. “And we got married in 2005.”

Mikkelsen also saw her volunteering blossom into a profession.

Two years into her firefighting duties, Mikkelsen pursued a career as a paramedic and now works for Alberta Health Services.

“I’ve chosen to stay part-time, casual with AHS because even though this is a volunteer job, our call-volume is quite high and having two emergency jobs is mentally tough sometimes,” Mikkelsen said. “I needed to find a balance between the two. I like both equally, I think fire has a little more fun.

“I’ve learned with years of experience that it’s tough to have two emergency service jobs in your own area. Although sometimes I will work EMS in this area, I prefer to be away because it’s hard to work on people that you know.”

The six stations serving Foothills County include Longview, Cayley, Blackie, Priddis, Spruce Meadows and Heritage Pointe, which are responsible for fire and medical response in its area.

As well, there is a great deal of co-ordination not only within the different halls that make up the Foothills Fire Department, but neighbouring departments in Okotoks, Black Diamond and Turner Valley.

“With us, we all have radios and we also have an app on our phone which allows us to tone out for calls. Let’s say you get that on that day, whoever is available, that’s who you get,” Smitham said. “And if we need more help then we will call in additional stations.

“We definitely get called out to other stations, most often Priddis and Spruce Meadows will be toned out together for bigger calls and then we work with Heritage Pointe, Turner Valley and Redwood Meadows and we’ve gone into Rocky View County. We have mutual aid agreements, which is what they’re called, and we provide each other with help if we need it.”

It’s the same all over the county.

“Sometimes you go through some tougher calls, but it just builds you as a team,” Smitham said.

“You get to meet a lot of people, I’ve made some really good friends. When you take the courses, it’s interesting too, because you get to meet all the other volunteers at the stations in the County as well as other counties and towns and get to meet other volunteer firefighters, you get to meet a lot of people.

“And just helping your own community where you live is very rewarding.”

The tough times build unbreakable bonds at the halls, those that last a lifetime.

“I’ve never been treated differently,” Mikkelsen said. “If I’m treated differently it’s because I’m not a big person. It’s always been the right person for the right job on this department, especially in Longview. Our department is half-female, half-male so we have to rely on each other for everything. Even our strongest guys have their weaknesses, we just make sure we’re all blended.”

In Longview, they’ve made an annual tradition of training and competing in the stairclimb at the Bow Tower in Calgary in support of all those who have and continue to fight cancer.

“We do things together outside of the fire department, we celebrate birthdays, loss or death,” Mikkelsen said. “And it’s important because when you have those difficult calls and you come out of it, you have to be able to trust and we’re really connected.

“I never understood this when I first joined, the term family or brotherhood or sisterhood, that’s where that term comes from and it took me a while of being in the service to understand that, to have a couple really crappy calls and you look around and realize these are the people that support me and pick me up, good communication, good leadership. We’re more than friends, we’re a family.”

In Longview, the volunteers are required to either live within close proximity or work their day jobs within the area of coverage and have an employer willing to let individuals go out on calls.

“So on a volunteer-basis here you’re on call for 24 hours, so if you’re around and if you’re available you go, any time,” Mikkelsen said. “So we miss birthdays, Christmases and unfortunately we’re a small department, there’s only eight of us right now. But we’re a strong eight, the eight we do have are very dedicated.

 “Sometimes you’ll get departments where you’ll have a roster of 20, but maybe only 11 or 12 will be dedicated and be willing to put their time in. We’re lucky enough to have a good solid eight. It’s tough sometimes, we would like to have a roster of about 15. I think that’s the highest we’ve had. It’s tough for Longview because we are so far out, it’s such a long commute for people who work in the city.”

Mikkelsen is the captain and training officer at the hall, giving her a wide range of responsibilities within that strong team dynamic.

“I have to make the overall best decisions with whatever is coming at us,” she said. “I’m the one that decides what we’re doing unless there’s a higher ranking officer, a chief, it’s on me to decide who’s doing what and what the overall plan is.

“It’s a tough job, it’s a lot of pressure sometimes, but I’ve got good leaders that I’ve learned from, they’ve guided me and they’re still guiding me. I just want to be the best version of me for them, for all of us. And I think every firefighter, that’s what their goal is, to be the best they can be.”

On the training side, Monday night is training night and it covers all bases in Longview. Once they’re through the programming, they go specifically through training catered to Longview.

“We live on a major highway and on the long weekends in the summer time it’s so busy,” she said. “So we train a lot with extrication and we’re so diverse because we get the motorbikes, we get the semi-trucks and fifth-wheels and we have to be knowledgeable on all aspects.

“We’re a huge farming community, we have a First Nations reservation (Eden Valley), their population is around 500 and we go out there quite often.

“The training is continual and when we’ve gone over everything, we start it over again.”

It’s a constant education because of how much firefighters need to know how to do, from treating patients, to tearing apart cars, extricating people, fighting grassfires, structure fires and taking gas calls.

In Mikkelsen’s experience there are times when volunteer firefighters come in with the best intentions, but aren’t quite ready for the rigours of the role.

“It does take a lot to be a volunteer,” Mikkelsen said. “You’ve got to really want it, you’ve got to be dedicated even when it’s stuff you don’t want to do. Not everybody wants to train on boring stuff, but just showing up and staying connected I think is the key to it. A lot of people they lose interest, or they can’t do it.

“Foothills really puts the importance on training and safety as number one so when you initially join there’s a lot that you learn and a lot you have to do and it may feel like a pressure, but in the long-run it’s absolutely for your own good and some people might not like that.”

The emphasis on safety, procedures and standards is one of the biggest changes she’s noticed since first joining the force some 13 years ago. With different technology, different types of vehicles on the roads, growing populations, different and new street drugs in society, it’s a continual learning process in training.

“I think for some people when they join they think, you’re just a volunteer, you don’t have to know the things full-time firefighters do. But we do, we know and do the same training as they do. The only difference is they’re at their locations 12 hours each shift, but we have the same knowledge, same training and same accountability,” she said.

“If you like to learn and grow, I think that’s why this job is so great. You’re never bored, it’s never the same thing and there’s always something to learn.”

And that’s what keeps the volunteers coming back.

“I don’t know what I’ll do when I retire,” Mikkelsen said. “I honestly think I get more back from volunteering than I give in. You get friendships, camaraderie, knowledge, leadership. I’ve become a strong person because of the knowledge and training.

“Giving back, or knowing you’ve done a good job as a team, the feeling that comes out of that is amazing. It keeps you going.”




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Remy Greer

About the Author: Remy Greer

Remy Greer is the assistant editor and sports reporter for Okotokstoday.ca and the Western Wheel newspaper. For story tips contact rgreer@okotoks.greatwest.ca
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