Hauling a heavy hose as you crawl into a burning building with a mask and air tank on is not something you could pay many people to do.
But dozens volunteer to do it at the Houston fire department.
“That’s where the fun and the challenges come,” says Jim Daigneault, who took over as Fire Chief at the end of October.
Ken Thomson, Houston’s previous Fire Chief, stepped down after more than 30 years of service at the department.
Starting as a dispatcher, Daigneault has been a volunteer at the Houston department for 10 years.
When the opportunity to train up—first as a first responder, then for road and fire rescue—Daigneault jumped at the chance.
Soon, he found himself riding engines right in the thick of it.
“It’s kind of eerie at times,” he said. “You’ve got all your gear on—lots of extra weight—and then you get into a smoky environment where you probably can’t see.”
Although Daigneault has never been burned firefighting, it’s only because he’s learned to stay low.
“If you stand up in a room, the heat can be a thousand degrees,” he said. “It will start to melt the visors on the helmets pretty quick.”
Daigneault said he really enjoys putting in time at the fire department, mostly because of the varied training.
“There’s a broad scope of things to do,” he said.
As well as fires, the Houston crew handles call-outs to do high-angle rescues for people who might have crashed a car off a steep road bank. Firefighters also train to use the “jaws of life” to pry open crashed vehicle doors and other metal structures that impede a rescue.
“You can cut through just about anything,” said Daigneault, although the newer steel on some cars is getting tougher to split. The “jaws” are actually three tools—a cutter, a spreader and ram that run on a hydraulic engine.
Firefighters also act as first responders when ambulances are tied up. The Houston department responds to fire calls in the District area, but answers road rescue calls all the way from Granisle down to Nanika Lake.
As Fire Chief, Daigneault has extra duties. As well as being the only full-time member to man the department, he is charged with coordinating local emergency services in case of a natural disaster.
Watching Ken Thomson working with all the police, ambulance, sandbaggers and other responders during the spring floods last year, Daigneault got a good idea of what might be in store.
“He didn’t get a lot of sleep. He was a pretty busy guy making sure the emergency centres are set up.”
The department is looking for fresh recruits, Daigneault said. It typically runs with 30 volunteers, but has 24 at the moment.
“Really, there are not a lot of prerequisites,” Daigneault said. “The better shape you’re in, the easier it is on you, for sure.”
The current team includes Daigneault’s daughter, who got her start as a Junior Firefighter—a program for Grade 10 and 11 students. She’s now one of two women on the crew.
“It’s good to have a mix,” Daigneault said. “Good to see more women involved.”
Daigneault’s son is also in the business, and now works as a full-time firefighter in Grand Prairie, Alberta.
“It’s a great opportunity, and a great group of people who volunteer right now.”