Fire chief 40 years a trail blazer

Brad Yochim’s dedication to firefighting fit him for his key role in fire and safety services for Virden, the adjacent rural area and for his broader reach in firefighting education.

For 40 years Yochim has served, both as a volunteer and for the last 18 years as the paid professional fire chief with Wallace District Fire Department. He has also recently served as President of the Manitoba Fire Chiefs Association.

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Yochim worked his way through the volunteer ranks in what he terms, “very satisfying” work. He was first approached by firefighter, Gary Mahony (late), who was married to Yochim’s cousin. “I always had an interest in it. I joined a month after I turned 18.” That’s how he got started.

The originally separate Elkhorn and Virden fire stations amalgamated to form Wallace District Fire Department in 1977, with Bill Edmunds as fire chief. Yochim was a young volunteer then, on his way to deputy fire chief.

Then, when Deputy Chief Yochim was set to become fire chief, the current deputy fire chief, Brent McDonald began with EDFD. He recalls, “As a new guy 20 years ago, Brad always came across as a visionary that wanted to see the department be one of the best trained and equipped departments in the province, if not the nation.”

He credits Yochim’s leadership and training as the building blocks of a strong fire department.

“I’ve always looked to Brad as a mentor,” says MacDonald. “Numerous members of WDFD have gone on to work as full-time firefighters with career departments, thanks in large part to the training provided through Brad. He has taught courses to hundreds of firefighters throughout the province over the years.”

25 YEARS A PARTS GUY

During his years as a volunteer, Yochim worked as a parts man for Virden’s GM dealer and then for Four Seasons. He later went into business as part owner of Virden Bearing. When Piston Ring bought them out, Yochim managed Piston Ring for three years.

His working knowledge came in handy for the fire department. “I did most of the purchasing when I was deputy chief… just because of my parts background.”

Now, Yochim has paid his dues climbing ladders and wielding a fire hose, but, he still considers firefighting an exciting challenge and often goes on calls as incident commander. His role now oversight, management and education, including teaching at Brandon’s Manitoba Fire College.

The WDFD volunteers are a well-trained crew, and with the development of a training facility north of Virden they practice under unique circumstances including making rescues within confined spaces.

Firefighters learn very practical skills that serve in everyday life says Yochim, “It’s very rewarding, the skills you learn over the time benefit you every day. From the basic stuff of how to tie knots, to driving big trucks.”

He says that fire is a well-researched science but never a closed book. “We’re continuously training. I started on day one and I’m still taking courses now. Every piece of training benefits you in life, in one shape or form.”

CHANGES

Firefighting has changed over the years, with the biggest change being the technology and safety equipment available for firefighters.

“When I started, we wore rubber boots, a long black leather coat, and a fiberglass hat with no protection from the heat whatsoever. Today, the firefighters are wearing fire resistant gear that costs $2000 - $3,000 per person. Fire resistant gloves, hoods helmets that are the best technology out there, we’re wearing the same gear as a career firefighter.”

The trucks are bigger and safer, equipped with air bags, warning features and won’t move without seatbelts being done up.

“Fires are burning hotter, when they burn hotter, they burn faster.” The burn rate is five times faster than 30 years ago, due to the oil-based synthetics in homes and buildings.

“They burn hotter because they have a higher heat release rate. It’s hotter when we get there. Thirty to 40 years ago there were more natural components in furnishings, didn’t burn that hot.

“Now, there’s two to three minutes from fire start, compared to 10 -15 minutes 30 or 40 years ago. That’s why smoke detectors are so important… early warning is critical.”

ANSWERING THE CALL

These days, the majority of calls involve road accidents. The fire department is called in case there is an extrication required to free someone from a damaged vehicle. When there’s a serious injury or death, that robs the fire chief of sleep, whereas most fires don’t.

However, he recalls a fire from long ago. In about 1982, Sangster’s Men’s Wear on Nelson St. caught fire on a Sunday morning in the middle of a freezing rain storm. “That was my first big fire.”

The storm was coincidental. The fire came from within the building. “Fire departments were there from Virden, Elkhorn, Reston, Oak Lake, maybe even Maryfield. I was a young firefighter back then, but that one sticks in my brain.”

The surrounding buildings were saved because the century old building had stone walls - a built-in fire wall.

A recent significant fire was the downtown Seventh Ave. fire of September 2017. “We fought that the whole day and nobody got hurt. We did a great job of saving the rest of the downtown,” Yochim says of the department.

It required a major, on-the-spot decision to sacrifice a building to stop the blaze: “It was the only way to get it out. We couldn’t send the firefighters in – it wasn’t safe for them to go inside. I’ve been criticized a couple times for doing that. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

It’s been 40+ years and Yochim still enjoys his work, but he’s looking farther down the road. “I signed another three-year contract with the Fire Board. I’m thinking about retirement and looking at the department and who will sit in my chair when I’m gone.”

Deputy MacDonald says, “Chief Yochim’s involvement at the provincial level with Manitoba Association of Fire Chiefs, as well as the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs has always ensured our department was at the forefront of professional service delivery to our community. [He] has lobbied time and again on behalf of firefighters in both Virden and Elkhorn to make sure we are afforded the training and resources to make a difference when it really counts.”

MacDonald thinks most people don’t realize how fortunate Virden area is to have Yochim at the helm and says, “He’s a guy that leads with integrity, and always puts the department first. On behalf of the firefighters in Virden and Elkhorn, I would like to congratulate Brad on this incredible milestone.”

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