Every Thursday for the past 98 years a handful of volunteers have congregated at the Sidney fire hall. They practice fire-fighting and life-saving techniques and try out the latest equipment, so that when the call comes, they’ll be ready. Their record is good: in nearly a century not a single fire-related fatality has occurred on this department’s watch.
Sidney, thankfully, has not seen many large fires. The only one that springs to mind for Harry Nunn, the department’s historian and a retired firefighter, was when the Sandown race track burned down in 1968. Nunn remembers how he got singed by the flames while aiming the nozzle of a hose.
Nevertheless small fires kept the department busy. Nunn says a cold winter night would almost guarantee an emergency call as people stoked their fires to stay warm and some, inevitably, got out of control. The development of safer means of home heating has helped to greatly reduce the incidence of fires.
Many other things have changed for the SVFD since it was established in 1914. Though the hall has always stood at the same site, it was rebuilt four times. And where once the volunteers were expected to charge into dangerous situations with little more than rubber hip waders and helmets over their civilian clothes, they now don fire-proof Nomex polymer gear. For years their only breathing aids were Second World War-era gas masks; now they safeguard their oxygen supply with self-contained breathing apparatus respirators.
Training has changed too. During the 38 years Nunn worked at the department, “we didn’t have manuals and all that stuff.” Instead the roughly 25 volunteers would have to rely on the twice yearly visits from two Vancouver fire marshals for updates on new equipment and techniques. Today the volunteers are required to take a full year of training before they can respond to calls.
In one sense this increasing professionalism has helped push the volunteering aspect into the background. More and more of the volunteers become career firefighters who cut their teeth with the SVFD before a full-time posting elsewhere. When Nunn was a volunteer in the 1960s, more than half of the volunteers had been around for 20 years. Now most have been with the department fewer than 10.
Some things have not changed. “Old Betsy,” as the 1934 Ford ladder truck is affectionately known, still resides in the fire hall; and a hose reel hangs from the wall that dates back to the station’s founding, when Sidney still centred on the local saw mill. What also hasn’t changed is the community spirit and camaraderie a volunteer fire department engenders.
Today, as for the past near-century, the firefighters are all “just average people who wanted to do something for their community,” says Nunn. “They’re a hell of a bunch of nice guys, and I’m proud of them.”