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Duties and Life at the Fire Stations

There is more to being a firefighter than extinguishing fires. Members of both Fire Departments were expected to participate in other activities to ensure the safety of the community. For instance, during the 1950s, the Fire Departments were involved in civil defense exercises, due to international tensions during the Cold War.

Firefighters were also involved in rescue missions. A 1962 agreement for the Port Arthur Fire Department recommended that there be two trained skin divers on duty at all times in the event of a rescue or dragging mission, an idea that came about because of a drowning at Boulevard Lake. Interested firemen would volunteer for this training. The Port Arthur Fire Department, as a result of rescue training, was able to help out with the scaffolding collapse of the S.S. Shahristan on September 27, 1965. Five workmen were involved in this accident, as they fell through to the hold of the ship. Using Fire Department equipment, the firefighters raised the men out of the ship and onto the dock to be attended to by the Ambulance and Rescue Truck.       

Two Firemen in Action

Over time, fires occurred less frequently, as the Departments engaged in public education and developed more efficient responses. The Fort William Fire Department Annual Reports, from the 1940s on, show a yearly decrease in losses due to fire and an increasing commitment to prevention and education. Beginning in the mid-1940s, and increasing in importance as the years went on, firefighters were responsible for door-to-door home and business inspections. These inspections, according to Fire Chief E.H. Dean, were the reason that Fort William was ahead of most of North America when it came to preventing loss of life and property. Fort William, in fact, had a consistently good record in terms of destruction caused by fire. In 1959, the losses as calculated per capita ($0.68) were the lowest on record and possibly the lowest in Canada compared to other cities of the same size. The 1940s and 1950s saw an increased devotion to community service by the two Fire Departments, as they participated in Fire Prevention Week, extensive training and courses, inspections, and blood drives.

Early Firefighting Scene

Being a firefighter also tended to impose on off-duty time. In the case of large fires, off-duty firemen would be called in to assist. This happened in 1963, when Acklands Limited on Violet Street in Fort William required all on- and off-duty firefighters, as well as all the equipment from the fire stations, to bring the fire under control. Extinguishing this fire took more than three hours of work.

There were a variety of additions to the Port Arthur Fire Department staff during the 1950s. Previously, on-duty firefighters had  been responsible for clerical and typist work. This situation soon became insufficient, and the Chief and Deputy Chief expressed frustration for years about firefighters being held down by clerical work when they had many other duties to perform in the Department. A regular typist was hired in 1960. 

A full-time fire inspector, Arthur Parry, was appointed in 1957 in order that there would be at least one person devoted to fire inspections, instead of relying on other busy members of the Department. The role of the Fire Inspector became more significant throughout the 1960s, and a request was made by the Fire Inspector to hire extra inspectors at the Port Arthur Fire Department.

Early Fire Brigade Portrait

Comfort was important to the members of the Fire Department, as the job and duties were undoubtedly taxing. It was important for the firemen to get adequate rest and be able to relax while at the station. This sparked a debate about working conditions in Port Arthur in the late 1950s, specifically regarding beds in the fire station. Outside opinion was solicited: the Fire Chief of Kitchener advised the Port Arthur Fire Department that it was better to have rested firemen on the night shift rather than forcing them to be awake, of course with the condition that the beds would not be abused by lazy men.

Given the strain and physical endurance required for the job, it was thought that the firefighters should get the rest necessary to function well. Considering that the night shift could be called in early for a big fire, and then have to continue working, it would be unfair to expect them to remain awake for longer than a full shift. It is also important to consider that firefighters had a high incidence of heart disease due to smoke inhalation and the strenuous nature of their work.

Department Toy Drive

By the time that this report was written in 1958, beds had long been removed from the stations, leaving sleeping firefighters to seek rest on chairs, tables, the floor, and even on piles of hoses. During the twelve years they were forbidden, beds were smuggled in, but were removed from sight during the day. There was no delay in response time to a fire alarm between firefighters who had been in bed and those who had been occupied elsewhere in the fire hall. Thus, a case had been made for beds in the fire stations.This same predicament was not an issue in Fort William: beds in the fire stations had always been acceptable, as was noted in the 1954 union agreement.

 

Members of the Port Arthur Fire Department were not allowed to participate actively in politics. This included a restriction on the ability to strike and to strike in support of other unions, as the Fire Department was declared an essential service in 1946. The men were also restricted from gambling (particularly card games) while on duty, but other recreational equipment in the hall was allowed, such as televisions. This equipment was to be purchased by the men themselves, rather than coming out of the Fire Department's budget. (Members of Council had voted against providing TVs in the Department in 1954, claiming that the quality of work would suffer if there was too much leisure in the fire stations.)

Muscular Dystrophy Awareness

The Port Arthur Fire Department, along with other Fire Departments across North America, supported fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Canada. The annual campaign included door-to-door canvassing. Generous donations were collected, as demonstrated by the $3,000 raised for the Association in March, 1956. The Department also teamed with Fort William’s Fire Department to raise money for the Twin Haven school, which exclusively taught children with developmental disabilities, raising almost $12,000. The Fire Departments also collected Christmas toys for children each year, beginning in the mid-1950s.

For more information on this subject, or any other subject of interest, please visit or contact the City of Thunder Bay Archives.