The following is a speech written and delivered by Bryan Legrow, a retired firefighter with the Wilkie & District Fire/Rescue Department, and delivered at a firefighters’ appreciation banquet held at Wilkie, Saskatchewan, June 2, 2017.
Good evening, everyone and distinguished guest. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Bryan Legrow. I called Wilkie home for just over 23 years. Twenty of those years I was a member of the Wilkie Fire/Rescue Department. I recently retired from the department as my wife, Wendy, and I moved to Saskatoon. It’s a little bittersweet that this is the last time I will ever be involved in a celebration like this with this fine group.
When Chief (Randy) Elder asked me a few weeks back if I would speak tonight about what it’s like to be a firefighter and what the service means to the community, I was deeply humbled and honoured to speak tonight. How do I explain to people what it’s like to be a firefighter for those who have never done it? Most people don’t really know what it is like to serve a community in this capacity and the responsibility that comes with it.
A fire department is made up of two types of capital. There is the bricks, mortar and equipment. This is the piece that is always in a state of debate at various levels of government around dollars, taxes, mill rates, budgets, etc. Then there is the human capital, the firefighters and their families. The spouses and families are a huge piece of the equation that this commitment requires from every firefighter, and that comes at a cost. This is very rarely debated at any level of government. There is no mill rate, tax or budget for this. How do you measure that human capital or attach a dollar figure? You simply can’t but trust me it does come at a cost.
A while back Kathy Heilman received the award for Wilkie & District Citizen of the year. In her speech she said, ”everyone has a price to pay for the space they occupy in their community, you just need to figure out what that price is.” I am not sure if her intent was to make those words as powerful as they were but they have stuck with me ever since.
”Everyone has a price to pay for the space they occupy in their community.” Think about that for a moment. Some people volunteer with many of the service groups in town. Some people are involved in minor sports. Some get involved with the schools or churches but the price those people pay by volunteering is no more or no less important to the people or the community.
Now look around the room at all the firefighters and their spouses that we are here to honour tonight. What do you think is the price they and their families pay?
I can’t even begin to count how many social gatherings, family functions, kids’ sporting and school events I have missed over the years, including all the members here tonight because they have missed them as well. So they can serve our community to keep it safe. That’s the price they pay.
I can’t count how many times I left the fire hall after being out all night. Went home to shower and went to work on no sleep. That’s the price they pay. That price has no dollar value but it comes at a cost to them, physically, mentally, professionally and personally.
Over my 20-year tenure as a firefighter I have seen a lot of great people come and go with the department. Some only for a few months and some with a lot of vested time in the department but, some of them I know left because that price became too high to continue to pay.
I don’t know how many people truly understand what it’s like to be a firefighter in rural Saskatchewan. It starts out for a lot of us living out a childhood dream of being a firefighter driving a big red truck. Then there is the passion for the industry, the comrade within the brotherhood as well as the adrenaline rush you get when you get a call.
Most people in our community have not had the experience of being sound asleep at 1 a.m. and by 1:15 a.m. being in full bunker gear with SCBA entering an engulfed structure. To try the best they can to save a neighbour’s home and belongings. Their children’s baby pictures, great grandma’s handmade quilt and all of their worldly processions. Then have to witness their emotional collapse when they realize everything they have ever worked for is now gone. That’s the price they pay.
Most people in our community will never know what it’s like to respond to the home of a friend, relative, neighbour and watch them pass away as CPR is being performed. All while trying to work within a chaotic scene, land a STARS chopper and not be able to do a damn thing about it as they watch them slip away. That’s the price they pay.
Most of the people in our community have never experienced what it’s like to be standing on a grid road in the middle of the night and extricate the body of a mother of two young children from a twisted wreck two days before Christmas. Then have to go home and look into the faces of their loved ones and pretend that everything is OK. That’s the price they pay.
While witnessing and working through all of this tragedy and carnage, it is generally happening under the microscope of onlookers, who you know will want to play armchair quarterback after everything is said and done and second-guess the decisions you made in a split second – to do what you believe was the right thing to do for the community and its residents. That’s the price they pay.
The role of the firefighter in Wilkie has changed dramatically in the last 20 years and will continue to change. They have gone from a perceived service club that some residents felt did nothing more than chase grass fires and save basements, to proving time and time again that they are a highly skilled, professional grade, well-oiled fire service machine who are able to respond and execute virtually flawlessly anything that is thrown at them. I know I have seen them do it. From an elderly lady who has accidentally set off her fire alarm, wildland fires, MVAs, train derailments, search and rescue, chemical spills, body recovery and the list goes on. They execute every time professionally and proficiently. I know; I’ve seen them do it.
The fire service industry itself is in a constant state of change not only for the professionals but also the volunteers. Equipment, apparatus, SOPs, communications, NFPA regulations and the list goes on and on. This is something our firefighters need to stay on top of because, when the time arises to exercise their skill sets, they are held to the same standard as the professionals. This is a piece that almost everyone outside the service doesn’t realize. Regardless who responds and how many members respond, the expectation of the community is that they know what they are doing and can perform any task and operate any piece of equipment to the same standard as the professionals.
This is a service the residents of this community and the area they serve should be very proud of as this group rivals the skills of any professional service in the province and I would say in some instances the pros could learn a lot from this group sitting here tonight. Let’s remember these people have full-time jobs and obligations. This is not their chosen profession. They are farmers, railroaders, tradesmen, business owners, facility managers and even the retired. Yet they serve the community like pros. Why? Because it is their passion and they believe it is their obligation to their community; and the commitment in keeping up with that change is their self-imposed duty for their friends, neighbours and relatives. That’s the price they pay.
This group of firefighters we are here to honour tonight are some of the finest committed individuals I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and serving with. I consider them friends. I would trust them with my life. I can say that with the utmost confidence because I have done it. These people put themselves selflessly in situations a normal person wouldn’t, only because they know that their brothers are competent enough to have their backs. When things go sideways or terribly wrong in the community, this is the group you want to have on scene and take charge.
When the community centre caught fire it was all hands on deck. No one hesitated or said I don’t want to do that. They all know what this facility means to the community. After the fire was extinguished, firefighters were huddled together next to one of the vehicles. Most physically spent, on their knees after doing several entries, dragging hoses, herding onlookers and trying to recoup. Do you know what they were talking about? Not how tired they were, how hungry or how thirsty they were. They weren’t talking about themselves. They were talking about the community and how are the kids, seniors and service clubs of the community going to cope with the loss of the facility. That speaks volumes to the type of people they are and their level of commitment to this community.
Ponder this and share with others in the community if you would like, when people begin to talk about how much it costs to have this service and why do they need all of this fancy equipment and training when that money should go into sidewalks, grading or culverts. What would happen if the community did not have this service? What if your son or daughter was involved in a MVA? Who would save them? Who would help you or your neighbours when a wildfire threatens their home, crop and livestock? If this service didn’t exist anymore in Wilkie, where would the help come from if it is not from here?
When most people who serve their community settle in for the evening and close their eyes, I am sure they see the smiles on the faces of people they helped and in their minds they are recounting those pleasant events of the day. When a firefighter finally lies down for the evening and closes their eyes after being out on a call, what do you think they see? It’s generally not smiles. It’s the faces of the distraught, injured, maimed and deceased. Some of which they will never forget for the rest of their lives.
The residents of the community and service area should take comfort in knowing that the Wilkie Fire/Rescue Department represents a group of individuals from all walks of life, age and backgrounds. But with one commonality. It’s a sense of community. They choose to pay for the space they occupy in their community by spending countless hours training, practicing and being on weekend call so that, when the situation arises, they are able to protect their neighbours, friends and relatives in this community.
So, what does it really mean to be a firefighter in Wilkie serving our community? It means commitment, sacrifice and adversity. No one does this for the accolades; they do it because it’s the right thing to do for the community. What dollar figure do you attach to that?
Firefighters – they deserve our respect and support as they have earned it. When they speak, people should listen as they know what they are talking about. When they respond to an incident, people shouldn’t second guess their actions because they have to live with them for the rest of their lives. Each and every one of them do this because ”everyone has a price to pay for the space they occupy in their community” and they have found that price. It is protecting the community and all of the residents within their service area and we all should be proud and thankful we have them.
In closing I would like to thank all of you for attending. Chief Elder for bestowing on me this great honour, I am truly humbled. To the firefighters and their families, don’t think for a second that what you do doesn’t matter in the community because it does.
I will leave you the words of the great Edward F Croker, a former Fire Chief from New York. ”When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work.”
Stay safe and thank you.