North River Fire Department
Members of the North River Fire Department - Photo Courtesy of the NRFD
The history of the North River Fire Department as told by former Fire Chief Don MacEwen (unless otherwise indicated by a superscript number)
It all started with the Junior Farmers Association in the early 1960’s. The Junior Farmers Association was an organization made up of young farmers from the area who wanted to help the community. Shortly after their formation, the Farmers had acquired the North River hall. The land on which the hall stood at that time was owned by Bruce MacKinley Senior. After acquiring the hall, the Farmers put a foundation under the building and began creating some revenue. Dances were held in the hall, and a few school classes rented some of the space as well. Around 1963-64 Willard MacPhail, Don MacEwen and a few others from the Farmers decided that they wanted to form a fire department. There were twelve original members that included Don MacEwen, Sheldon Moore, Keith Wheatley, Willard MacPhail, Howard MacPhail, Mel MacKinnon, Jack Peters, George Proud, Gordie Lank, Dewar Simms, Bobby Clow, Temple Stewart.
The North River Fire Department actually had a very rough beginning. It was formally established in 1965 with Keith Wheatley as the first fire chief. The men started from scratch. The firefighters all worked on a volunteer basis, with no supporting funds and no training. The one thing they did have however, was the hall. An addition was built onto the hall shortly after the fire department was established. They soon obtained their first truck, an old 1953 Ford with a tank which was donated by Irving.
Tragedy occurred during the fall of 1967 when, ironically, the fire hall burned down. A local plumber was working on thawing the pipes when the building caught fire. It spread very quickly and the hall was in flames in a matter of minutes. Miraculously, the school children were all evacuated safely. As one can imagine, this was a huge loss, both for the newly formed fire department and for the families of the community who lost their fire hall and school. The firefighters were determined and planned to re-build right away. This new endeavor was not without further misfortune. As construction of the new fire hall began, a strong wind storm passed over the community and knocked the whole thing down.
“He (the contractor) had to go in and build that building from the inside. Because it’s blocks; it was mortar and would freeze so we had to keep heat in here all the time. I remember a big storm came up and I remember standing over in that Shell service station, three or four of us. And, you could see her starting to lean and down it went. The building itself didn’t fall but the shell fell down. So, we had to go and build it all over again.”
When the new building was complete, it was large enough to accommodate five trucks and a school room. As far as training was concerned, it was mostly self-taught in the beginning. The North River Fire Department covered and still covers a large area: and from its inception the NRFD has received a great deal of calls. As Don MacEwen stated, “you learned by doing.” Later on, they received training videos and practiced during weekends. A training school near Sleepy Hollow jail was built later, which is where training for firefighters currently takes place.
Finding the funds to operate something as large as a fire department was very difficult. Other than the many dances and the space rented to the schools, the firefighters also went door-to-door to fundraise for the fire station. The firefighters were all volunteers, so they were not paid for the hours and effort they put in.
The NRFD is a dedicated crew that takes the upmost pride in keeping all of their equipment in tip-top shape and ready for any emergency. The fire hall is kept immaculately clean. They take great pride in what they do. In order to become a firefighter, one must submit an application. A call for applications is sent out annually. The applicants are called in for an interview and must have completed a medical. Roughly, five or six applicants are chosen and go through a one year probationary period in which they are provided with a uniform and in-house training. After the one year probationary period the applicants are re-evaluated, and a vote among the members is taken to determine whether or not to allow the applicant to continue. If the applicant is voted in, they proceed to Level 1 training at their school.
Unlike most other fire departments, the NRFD is completely owned by the firefighters. All of the decisions are made by the crew, on a “majority rules” system. The founding members did not plan it that way. The department simply began as a Junior Farmers group and formed into a fire department. Being privately owned does have its downsides; at times the firefighters had to put their own money into it. Some days when there was no money to put gas in the tank, it would come out of the pocket of one of the crew. Improvements came for the NRFD with the creation of the CIC (Community Improvement Committee). North River officially became a community with a CIC under the Municipalities Act of 1983.1 Further extensions to the fire hall were made in 1984. There are currently thirty members of the North River Fire Department.
In the beginning, the firefighters received a helping hand from everyone; wives, girlfriends, father and mothers. There were three “fire phones” which would be rotated around to the homes of each firefighter. If a man received a fire call, his wife/girlfriend/father/mother would then call out to the other phones. The NRFD also used the radio stations for fire calls. When a call came in the message was passed on to the radio station and the alarm would be sounded over the radio. This service of course had to be paid for, so sponsors were found to help with costs. A huge improvement came with the invention of pagers. The NRFD was one of the first fire department on the Island to use the pager system. This new system was a huge breakthrough, as it proved to be a much more quick and efficient way of contacting the firefighters.
As with any new operating system, there has been some trial and error, which in turn has led to the improvement to the system over the years. Different people were hired to implement different systems. One system used by the NRFD was sort of card filing system, in which each card would have the layout of any given house. The bedrooms of each person residing in the house would be indicated on the card, the intent being to find the children and get them out first. If a call came in, the card would be retrieved. This system was not used very often. They quickly discovered the in-efficiency of this system as families grew and rooms were changed. This system was in place before the time of smoke detectors, the invention of which came as a huge leap forward in firefighting and fire detection.
In the beginning, the NRFD received up to 300 calls a year. Today, with the coming of new technologies, fire awareness and education the calls have dropped to roughly 140 a year.2
The current Chief of the North River Fire Department is Kirby Wakelin, former chiefs included Keith Wheatley, Don MacEwen, and Norman MacPhee
The North River Fire Department currently provides services with eight pieces of equipment. They include; a Tactical Rescue Unit “TACT 2”, two Pumpers, three Tankers, a Zodiac Rescue Boat and an Argo ATV.3 The equipment used by the NRFD today is much more advanced and sophisticated compared to what they started off with. As mentioned earlier, the NRFD received their first truck, a 1953 Ford, from Irving. Their first radio was a wooden one, which did not actually operate that well. Don joked, “you could almost shout farther.” Two-way radios came in later which was a significant improvement.
The NRFD was the first fire department on the Island to acquire the Jaws of Life. The Legion generously contributed half of the funds to purchase the equipment, which cost about $3,000 at the time. Today, Don estimates that the cost has risen to $30,000. As no other fire department on the Island had the Jaws, the NRFD would travel as far as Borden to answer calls that needed that equipment.
The move to being first response was not something the firefighters wanted. Their major responsibility was fighting fires. However, as neither the police department nor the ambulance services have the necessary equipment, the fire department was somewhat “forced into it.” Today the fire department responds to everything from fires to accident to security alarms.
To learn more about the North River Fire Department please visit their website by clicking here.