Speak Up: Connected Communities Honor Fallen Firefighters

T he date is March 19, 2013. The temperature is minus 8 degrees Celsius and the sky is bright blue in Medicine Hat, Alberta. The sound of a Highland piper playing “Flowers of the Forest” in the clear, crisp air can be heard for at least a mile in all directions.

Coaxed gently by a father’s hand, a young boy steps forward. Cradled in his small hands is a homemade wreath. Young Thomas leans forward and lays the wreath at the base of the weathered headstone of his great-great-grandfather. The headstone reads: “William Stewart, Died March 19, 1913, Age 25 years 7 months.”


A century ago

In the early 1900s, the allure of cheap natural gas had brought industry to Medicine Hat. Natural gas was so plentiful that almost everyone who owned a house and property had drilled a gas well. While this led to fortunes for many, it did not come without some cost. Pockets of gas regularly escaped the crude wells and piping, caught fire and burned down homes and businesses. It was not uncommon for a business owner to go to work, light a gas lamp and blow up the building.

As the number of fires increased, the city of 10,000 people built and equipped two fire stations. Steam pumps and ladder wagons were pulled to the fires by teams of sturdy horses. Like many small towns of that era, the firefighters were mostly volunteers who would run to the station, hitch up the horses and bravely head out to tackle any fire that started.

The large, three-story brick building on Main Street had housed a patchwork of enterprises over the previous 11 years. None, however, had found success. The building was constructed as a wool mill, but that business failed twice before a promoter named Malcolm proposed to turn it into a huge beef cannery. Malcolm was doomed to failure through his dubious manipulations and the company was reorganized twice more before becoming the Western Canada Cold Storage and Meat Packing Plant. This new company was solidly financed and the new machinery at Malcolm Canneries Number Five stood ready to go. Soon, workers would be hired, the power switched back on and the whirr of belt-driven machines would bring life to the factory.

The company employed a caretaker named McQueen. On Wednesday, March 19, 1913, shortly before 4:30 P.M., McQueen noticed a flash of flame run along an exterior wall and then disappear below the floor. At exactly 4:40, McQueen saw smoke and telephoned an alarm to the fire station.


Explosion claims 3 lives

William Stewart was an interior decorator who had moved to Medicine Hat seven years earlier. He built a house and started a family with his wife Ima, 23, daughter Margaret, 2 years old, and a newborn son, Herbert William (Bill). William had recently joined the volunteer fire department, wearing regimental number 97.

The fire station bells sounded to summon the volunteer firefighters. William dropped what he was doing and ran out the door, just as he had done so many times before. He arrived at the station, donned his gear and headed off with the first team of horses as they dragged the heavy brass fire pump to the fire.

The three-story building stood ominously quiet and dark when the firefighters arrived. That meant they would have to enter the cannery and seek out the fire before it got hold of the building and spread to the rest of the town. A crowd gathered in the street as the firefighters headed inside with axes and hoses in hand. They pushed inward until a wisp of smoke could be seen seeping out from the floor boards. The smoke was just as McQueen had described and clearly a clue to the hidden fire beneath.

Firefighter Ringler quickly chopped a hole through the floor to get at the fire below. On the final swing of his axe, there was a rush of deadly gas. Fire hoses quickly pushed it back in the hole, but it was too late to prevent a massive explosion. Ringler was blown toward the door, but miraculously escaped uninjured. Several other firefighters were blown clear of the building, including Lieutenant McLeod, who had no recollection how he and the others had escaped or survived. Captain Buchanan was tossed more than 60 feet by the blast, but his partner, John A. Brier, was killed where he stood. As the building collapsed many of the firefighters were narrowly missed by the heavy walls and were lucky to survive. Two of them, William Stewart and Reginald Rimmer, however, were killed when a brick archway collapsed inside.

The blast launched more than 25,000 square feet of roof three feet in the air, caused the building to fall and hurled thousands of red bricks into the street. All that was left of Malcolm Canneries Number Five was the rubble that littered the street. Five people died that afternoon, including three firefighters and two bystanders, a visitor from Boston, MA, named Charles Bohannan and Harry Green, a 12-year-old boy. Ten people were critically injured and three dozen more were wounded by flying or falling debris. There was mayhem on Main Street, yet the firefighters who were still standing forged on to restore order and to tend to the injured and dying.


Back to the present

Pender Island’s volunteer firefighters had offered to stand by for fire or medical emergencies at the inaugural launch of the Hope Bay Boat Days and Music Festival. Hope Bay is a waterfront commercial center on Pender Island, which lies between Vancouver and Victoria on the west coast of Canada. In 1998, the buildings at Hope Bay burned and collapsed to the ground. The rebuilding took years and the center is finally getting back on its feet. The sound of bagpipes and drums resounded in Hope Bay and the sea beyond as the event was opened in regal tradition by the Pender Highlanders.

Sue Foote, a Pender Island resident and one of the pipers that day, approached me at the fire truck to tell me a remarkable story. I was captivated by the pride and emotion displayed in her eyes as she depicted the amazing series of events that occurred in March of this year. The connections that unfolded in her story moved me to the core.

The story began with Sue’s planning of a memorial trip to Medicine Hat. She is the granddaughter of William Stewart, one of the firefighters killed in 1913. She would gather the family in recognition of her grandfather’s untimely death 100 years earlier. Her grandfather was of Scottish heritage and like her ancestors Sue had become a Highland piper. Sue could think of no greater honor than to play the pipes and wear the Stewart family clan plaid scarf at a memorial service in Medicine Hat to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death.

Sue contacted the fire chief in Medicine Hat in the hope that a few firefighters might attend the memorial she had planned in her grandfather’s honor. Chief Brian Stauth said he would be honored to accommodate her request on March 19, 2013, exactly 100 years after her grandfather’s death.

That call completed her arrangements for the memorial service, but Sue was worried about playing in the freezing temperatures she would surely encounter in March. She contacted Malcolm Sissons, pipe sergeant of the South Alberta Pipes and Drums in Medicine Hat, who coached her through the challenges of cold-weather piping. Their conversation turned to a heritage meeting at which Malcolm and another local resident, James Marshall, were present. James and his wife Lorine now live in the home that Sue’s grandfather built in 1912. In a gesture of welcome and care, the Marshalls offered a tour of the house. The Marshalls are only the third owners of the house and had moved it to a new location in town. As they arrived at the house Sue was amazed when she saw the address. It was 97 – the regimental number her grandfather had worn as a volunteer firefighter.


Heroes remembered

The day of the ceremony, Sue and her family arrived to find 30-plus firefighters, an honor guard and a procession of fire trucks assembled to escort them to the cemetery. Sue’s grandson Thomas was invited to ride in the fire truck that led the procession to the Hillside Cemetery. Thomas then laid the wreath crafted by his grandmother at the marble headstone of his great-great-grandfather. Sue fulfilled her vision to play her pipes in honor of her grandfather and while doing so honored a second fallen firefighter, John A. Brier, who is also buried there. Her family – son Scott, his wife Olga, daughter Cori and grandson Thomas – stood by while her husband John recited a eulogy to celebrate her grandfather’s life.

Sue was also invited to play the pipes at the Old Medicine Hat Hillside Cemetery in honor of Reginald Rimmer, the third firefighter killed that fateful day. Finally, the family attended a memorial service for all three firefighters at the Medicine Hat Firefighter’s Memorial at Medicine Hat Fire Station 3. The memorial bears a plaque with her grandfather’s name and was designed and crafted by James Marshall. Sue was presented a commemorative plaque in honor of her grandfather’s sacrifice.

March 19, 1913, was a tragic day that ends with a wonderful story of family survival, love, respect and honor. William Stewart, John A. Brier and Reginald Rimmer made the ultimate sacrifice. Although they are gone from this life; they will not be forgotten.


A family of firefighters

We must never forget that firefighters put their lives at risk to protect us every day of the year, not unlike these brave souls who perished on March 19, 1913, and the thousands of others who have died in service to their communities. The Pender Islands are connected to a family of firefighters that stretches to Medicine Hat, across this great continent and abroad. It is a fire service family that is intimately connected through our communities and through our missions to prevent harm, save lives and protect property.

Under the guidance of Chief Stauth, the Medicine Hat Fire Department demonstrated exceptional love and care toward the visiting Pender Islanders and tremendous dignity, respect and honor for the great traditions of the fire service. We applaud them all for a job well done and wish them all a safe return from every call.

Thank you to the Foote family – Sue, John, son Scott Gullion and his wife Olga, daughter Cori Fiddes and grandson Thomas Gullion. Your pilgrimage has honored your family well and shown tremendous respect to your extended family in the fire service. Thank you all for the lasting vision of remembrance you have so lovingly demonstrated to us all.

Charles W. Boyte, CFO

Fire Chief

Pender Island Fire Rescue

Pender Island, British Columbia


Fighting discrimination

in the fire service

Oct. 11 is “National Coming Out Day,” a day lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals are encouraged to share their true selves. Many of you may know a co-worker or family member who is LGBT. Even those of you who think you don’t know an LGBT co-worker or family member probably do. You may not realize it because they are not transparent about who they are. You may wonder why must someone announce his or her sexuality? Why don’t they just keep it to themselves?

As an openly gay firefighter paramedic I discovered first hand that the fire service can be a rough place for someone who is “different” for any reason, be it race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation. I began my career in the closet. I faced countless inquiries about my family life, marital status, etc. I answered that I was single and invented excuses as to why. These inquiries were not malicious; they were just co-workers wanting to get to know me. Nobody thinks twice about these questions unless you feel you have something to hide. For me, that meant steering the conversations away from my personal life and trying to hide the truth.

Prior to coming out, I tried to never lie about who I was. I was good at crafting excuses and vague responses in an attempt to satisfy my co-workers’ curiosity enough to have the conversations move on. I had to filter everything I said to make sure I wasn’t about to out myself. I felt if I flat-out lied, I would be breaking the trust that is vital in the fire service. I know that when something goes wrong on a scene, one of the most important things we have is a trust that our co-workers are there for us. I felt that if my relationships were forged on lies and half-truths, then that trust would be at jeopardy. This constant dancing around the truth took a toll on me. It was very stressful to think one slip of the tongue and the entire charade could be over.

The stress was tearing me up inside. When I would hang out with my gay friends, I would constantly look over my shoulder to make sure nobody I knew from work was around. When I was on shift, I would avoid talking about anything but work. It was no way to go through life. As naive as it sounds, I thought the moment anyone found out I am gay I would be blacklisted and somehow forced out of the career I love.

To my surprise, once I came out, I was met with overwhelming support. I quickly reassured my co-workers that nothing was going to change and nobody would have to tiptoe around the issue. I made it known that if anyone had any questions for me, I would gladly respond openly and honestly. Once people started asking questions, they began to understand me. It became a great learning experience all around.

In honor of “National Coming Out Day,” let it be known that you support equality. Nobody is asking you to march in a gay-pride parade, but being a straight ally can be as simple as letting it be known that you would support an openly gay or lesbian co-worker. Or, if you hear someone on your crew talking disparagingly about an LGBT individual, telling him or her it is not OK.

Discrimination of any kind should not be tolerated in the fire service. Be a leader and speak up against all forms of inequality.

Brett Dunckel

Firefighter Paramedic

Broward Sheriff’s Office

Department of Fire Rescue

and Emergency Services

Fort Lauderdale, FL

The writer is the founder of the non-profit organization You Can Be Anything Inc. (youcanbeanything.org) and author of the book American Heroes Coming Out From Behind the Badge. He may be contacted at brett@youcanbeanything.org.

5 reasons to become

a fire protection engineer Fire is a danger that can impact entire communities. For example, each year in the U.S., more than 3,000 people die, thousands are injured and billions of dollars in property is lost as a result of fire. To combat these significant losses, fire protection engineers are using science and technology to make our world safer from fire.

Fire protection engineers work for an important purpose: to protect the environment, property and, most importantly, people from the dangers of fire. Here are five reasons to enter the essential field of fire protection engineering:

1. Fire protection engineers make a difference. Because fire protection engineering is a unique profession that focuses on protecting people, property and the environment from the ravages of fire, many fire protection engineers find job satisfaction knowing they are making a difference.

“The one thing that really pulled me into the field was the human element, knowing that the work that we do impacts the life safety of people in a building,” said Teresa Chung, a fire protection engineer from the San Francisco Bay Area in California. “I really wanted to have a positive impact on society, and so fire protection engineering drew me in.”

2. Fire protection engineers are in demand. Despite the staggering economy, fire protection engineers are in high demand and short supply. As such, employers find it difficult to recruit qualified engineers.

“The market for students graduating with a bachelor of science in fire protection engineering is very strong,” said Jim Milke, chair of the Fire Protection Engineering Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. “Many of our graduates this spring had multiple offers.”

3. Fire protection engineers work on interesting projects. Fire protection engineers have the opportunity to work on a wide range of important projects, ranging from designing a high-profile Las Vegas casino to protecting nuclear power plants.

“Being a fire protection engineer is very satisfying. I do something different every day, and I am continually learning and challenged by the projects,” said William Fletcher, a fire engineering consultant at Aon Fire Protection Engineering. “I get to work with a variety of people and projects in a field I really enjoy every day.”

4. Fire protection engineers are well paid. According to a survey conducted in 2012 by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), the median U.S. total compensation for fire protection engineers is $113,748. (See http://goo.gl/fkMjcd.) Because of the overwhelming demand for fire protection engineers, they are among the highest-paid engineers in the world.

5. Fire protection engineers have diverse career options. They are employed internationally by consulting firms, government agencies, corporations, fire departments, insurers and building code officials. Fire protection engineers perform a wide range of roles such as designing building systems that detect fires, control the spread of fires, control the movement of smoke and provide a safe means for building occupants to egress a building. They also conduct fire safety research and investigate fires to discover how they spread, why protective measures failed and how those measures could have been designed more effectively.

To find out why fire protection engineering is a rewarding career choice or for a free copy of The SFPE Guide to Careers in Fire Protection Engineering, visit http://careers.sfpe.org. View our infographic to learn more about the pathways to become a fire protection engineer.

Chris Jelenewicz.

Engineering Program Manager

Society of Fire Protection Engineers

Bethesda, MD