Always on call
Doug Tidgwell remembers his first call as a volunteer firefighter in Bedford some 30 years ago. It was a car accident in which a passenger died. He remembers his second call, too: a car fire that turned into a house fire.
“It was a rude awakening for someone who just had basic first aid,” Tidgwell recalls.
Tidgewell, with dozens of other volunteer firefighters, keep answering the calls in Bedford. Some of today’s volunteers—there are 20 in the current group—signed on decades ago. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Bedford Fire Department when the first volunteers signed on in 1939, although the department can trace its roots back to 1922. Then, a small shed equipped with buckets, ladders and fire axe, was the department.
Career firefighters eventually worked the day shifts, and now work 24-hour shifts, but volunteers were always crucial to the service.
While these members all have their memories, they all signed up to connect with the community.
“I came home from college and was looking forward to filling a gap,” says Gord Long, who’s been a volunteer for 30 years. Long joined as a volunteer because his friends were “egging him on.” He was also subjected to what he calls “relative pressure:” his grandfather was a found member of this group of volunteers, and his father served as a member, too.
“If you’re shy and you want to get to know people, join,” adds Tidgwell, who also served as captain for 23 years.
Ed Conway, who’s the senior volunteer with 46 years under his belt, had a social reason for joining, too.
“I joined to get into the dances,” he jokes. Conway eventually served as the executive’s secretary, treasurer, adding he really enjoys the comraderie, good-natured “ribbing” and everything else that goes with it.
Zach Nicoll is one of the newest members of the volunteer force. At 24, he’s been a volunteer for two years now. While he works as a plumber, he wants to join the paid force. The job, he says, is in his genes.
“It’s always been a part of my family,” says Nicoll, whose father and grandfather were firefighters, too. “I’ve always been around it. Long term, I’d love to have a career in the fire department.”
Firefighters in Bedford have had three homes since the beginning. The first was located at the corner of Rutledge and Borden Streets, a property now owned by private owners. The second station was on the Bedford Highway, just above Shore Drive. The new station, #8, also serves as a dispatch centre for the provincial 911 service. It’s at this building where the volunteers have regular meetings.
These volunteers have an important job to play in the community. They work with the regular fire department and its paid members, going to calls. They also take part in the necessary training, much of which has change considerable over the years.
While they say firefighting still involves, “putting water on hot stuff,” according to Robert Andrews, a school custodian who’s been a volunteer firefighter in Bedford for 23 years, a lot of the understanding of fires has changed. There’s considerably more research into fire prevention and creating regulations to reduce the risks. Investigation techniques have changed, too. But so has the composition of the fires themselves, most of which are fuelled by new chemicals, building products and other materials that consistently change with technological advances.
There have been other changes in Bedford that have changed firefighting too. More development means fewer wooded areas, and that means fewer brush fires. An aging population now means more medical calls. In fact, in Bedford most of the calls they answer now are medical, not fire, calls.
“It’s a learning curve every year,” Tidgwell says.
Conway says the more senior members learned on the job. Now, new volunteers take an eight-week course: “These young fellas are much better prepared.”
Bedford has had a lot of firsts when it comes to firefighting: the community was the first to have a 911 service. It was also the first fire department to have a defibrillator.
These firefighters play other roles in giving back to the community. Firefighters here first took part in community events, like parades, when Bedford was a town. That event eventually transformed into Bedford Days, and firefighters still take part in events for kids and more. One of the group’s largest fundraisers at Bedford Days is the Beer Fest, an event for those 19 an up, with music and entertainment.
Even though many of these volunteers have put in decades of work, none of them see a day where they will retire. “We do this because we want to do this, not because we get paid,” Andrews says. “We want to do it for as long as we can.”
For more information on the Bedford Volunteer Fire Department, visit www.bedfordfiredepartment.com.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.