Firefighters train to do what they do - to quench fires, save lives and property, to manage traffic and extricate victims trapped in wreckage. While their skills are learned, there’s much more to it than that.
The desire to learn the skills of a firefighter seems to come naturally to the many volunteers who serve their communities.
Dropping what you’re doing and rushing to the fire hall in answer to the call, not knowing for certain what you will face – it’s not for everyone, but that’s what volunteers in rural communities do to serve and protect.
Nick Young, a Miniota farmer and firefighter has a unique perspective from his position as a volunteer fire chief. Young says, “I was asked by my boss at the time if I wanted to replace him on the fire department. I thought I'd give it a try and quickly fell in love with it.”
He joined up 30 years ago, in 1992. In 2007, he stepped up to take on the role of fire chief and the challenges of running a department while farming full-time.
Young says, “This job demands a lot from you and that increases every year, it seems.”
Administration requirements are significant. Young is not a paid employee but receives an annual honorarium as Chief along with the pay that all firefighters receive for attending trainings, meetings and for calls.
As fire chief for the small town of Miniota and a portion of the Prairie View Municipality, the chief does everything from cleaning the fire hall to incident command.
He runs training sessions, communicates with the municipal council, the Office of the Fire Commissioner, Manitoba and Canadian fire chief organizations, and mutual aid districts.
The chief prepares and presents an annual operating/equipment budget to the council. He must apply for grants and incentive funds, stay current on policies and procedures, and keep records.
Young makes presentations to school students and seniors, takes calls from the media when they arise, and updates the Miniota Fire Department Facebook.
Morale is key for fire department
“The biggest job I have is earning respect from all of my members and making sure they are all well, both physically and mentally,” says Young. “If situations arise, I need to make sure I'm there for them and I get them any help they may need.”
Answering calls can be traumatic.
“Everyone is different and deals with matters in their own way. We go to some horrific scenes at times and it can take its toll. Debriefing is vital after calls and recognizing when things aren't quite right is essential. I've taken a few mental health awareness courses and seminars to help in that way.”
The fire chief is the gatekeeper for his team’s morale.
“I take pride in making sure there are no bad apples within our fire (department) family. Regular meetings, social gatherings involving the members' families, and training sessions, are key.”
It’s important to take responsibility for mistakes and to listen. “I welcome feedback, new ideas and criticism. We all make mistakes, including myself.”
Change is continual for the fire service which means keeping current with innovations, equipment and training, all for the safety of both the members and the public.
“Without that, you are just responding as a citizen, except you may be in a red truck with flashing lights. We typically train twice a month with the exception of the busy spring and fall farming season because the majority of our members are involved in agriculture.
“This group is my second family and at the end of the day, I'm responsible for their safety and wellbeing while [they’re on duty]. In small towns especially, the public looks to you when any emergency arises… they expect us to be there and to be prepared.”
In rural areas, mutual aid agreements with surrounding fire departments can save the day in a big fire.
“Our mutual aid system is the best in the country. Surrounding fire departments work together to be able to respond and help out other departments at incidents that can overwhelm one department.”
Representing the district, Young sits on the board of directors for the Manitoba Association of Fire Chiefs, which he says he enjoys very much.
He’s on several committees including the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation (CFFF). “This is very personal to me after the death of James Hargrave, who I called a friend and relative.”
(James Hargrave, the Medicine Hat firefighter who died in the line of duty in 2017, was married to Elizabeth Lelond of Miniota.)
Young has twice travelled to Ottawa to the memorial weekend; once when Hargrave was honoured and his name added to the memorial wall. Manitoba was the honorary host in Ottawa in 2019, a moving experience for the Miniota chief.
“Brad Yochim (former Virden fire chief) and I initiated the fundraising campaign to collect a toonie from every firefighter in Manitoba. It's an annual campaign and we raised almost $10,000 the first year. These funds go directly to CFFF to help host the families of the fallen each year at the annual memorial weekend in Ottawa.”
Young predicts that as standards of training and service increase, there will come a time when most fire departments will require a full-time fire chief.
With 30 years of firefighting behind him, Young says, “I still enjoy the action and adrenaline rush, even though my body tells me I can't do as much anymore.”
But the fire chief sees a bigger picture: “I mostly take pride in shaping a small-town department into a reliable, capable and prepared group of individuals who have sacrificed a lot to be here. There's always more to give and do, which keeps me interested. I won't do this forever, so preparing someone else to take over is also another ambition of mine. I'm proud of this entire group because I know they will be there in times of need.
“We've accomplished many things over the years and made some big steps which I can look back on and say I was a part of that team.”