Capt. Dave Brown remembers well his first days as a “tailgater,” riding in the back of a Saanich fire engine.
His captain would slide open a window and through it, pass extinguishers and bark commands to young Brown, who was left out in the elements in an open cab known as the jump seat.
“The old days when I started, we didn’t have this nice cab right here,” says Brown, sitting inside the department’s newest truck with long time firefighter and truck driver/operator Bob Schuttinga.
“We’d sit out in the snow and ice back then,” Brown says of the exposed seating. “Everybody’s gotten soft and wimpy, so we have to have them inside now.”
The nearly 50 years of combined experience between the two hasn’t dampened their desire to share a laugh over their profession. Both men call their careers with the Saanich department a dream – one made even dreamier with the recent addition of the Smeal pumper truck.
The $550,000 vehicle arrived from Nebraska late last year and came into service in January, following in-house customizing. Equipped to carry 2,650 litres of water and 189 gallons of foam (a 50 per cent increase in capacity from three decades ago), the diesel-powered engine is built tough to handle the demands of the job. All the gadgets and technology on board – the hydraulic jaws of life, fully automated ladders, electronic pump valves – make the work of firefighters that much easier.
Just press a button in the cab and winter chains drop down onto the massive tires of the 10-metre-long vehicle.
“(The trucks) basically all follow the same idea, but they all have their own idiosyncrasies that we have to be familiar with,” Brown says.
Training exercises are scheduled daily to keep firefighters up to speed and comfortable with each new piece of equipment as it’s employed.
As the firefighters show off their tools – “gas sniffers” for carbon dioxide detection are clipped to the console and oxygen tanks, and boots beneath the seat bottoms and backs are positioned and ready for the tailgaters – a faint announcement comes over the hall’s sound system. Schuttinga pops open the door to his left and within seconds, Brown has his hand-held radio tuned to the same frequency.
They receive the message: Saanich is now on call for the Victoria Fire Department, whose staff is stretched thin responding to other calls.
Brown laughs at their speedy response to the radio murmur.
“It’s like a robin listening for a worm,” he says.
His co-worker closes the door and the two continue the tour of the truck.
The new vehicle is expected to serve as one of the primary response vehicles for 10-15 years. After that it may be used as a backup or sold to a smaller department or private company. For Brown, who plans to retire sometime in the near future, and Schuttinga, this truck is likely to outlast their final years of service.
They applaud the department for allowing veteran firefighters to stay current with new technologies and among new members every year.
“I’ve met firefighters from all over the world in all different kinds of departments and they’re all the same type of guys, with a goal to serve the public and do the best job they can,” Brown says. “I don’t think that aspect of the job has changed … Once you’re on, it’s a great career.”
Adds Schuttinga: “It’s gone fast.”
Technology of the trade
Each fire engine comes equipped with a thermal imaging camera, or TIC. The hand-held device, used by firefighters to detect even the lowest levels of heat, is linked to a screen in the vehicle of the battalion chief for viewing. The sensitive camera is used to locate smouldering flames between walls, after chimney fires or during the search of a smoke-filled room. TICs can detect heat levels as low as those left behind by footsteps.
By the numbers
• Area served: 103.4 square kilometres, 114,000 residents
• Fire stations: 3
• Uniformed personnel: 110
• Municipalities served by Saanich dispatch: 6 (Esquimalt, Oak Bay, Central Saanich, North Saanich, Sidney and Saanich proper)