I'm currently working on a new crime fiction series set in eastern Ontario, and one of the great things that comes from writing about your own region is that inevitably you begin to look more closely at things you've taken for granted in the past. The manuscript I'm presently working on includes a response to a fire by the Rideau Lakes Fire Department in Leeds County, Ontario, and in order to put the characters to work in my story I needed to do some research on the Rideau Lakes fire stations in particular and rural volunteer firefighting in general.
A revelation, to be sure.
This past weekend I was signing books at the annual Westport Christmas Farmers' Market craft show at Rideau Vista Public School in Westport, Ontario. As I chatted with two of the women with tables next to mine, I discovered quite by accident that both their husbands are volunteer firefighters with the Westport station of the Rideau Lakes Fire Department. Never being one to miss a chance, I began asking questions--after explaining, of course, the reason for my burning (!) curiosity. Needless to say, I discovered that while my research had been pretty solid in terms of training requirements, compensation, and equipment, what was missing was the human factor.
They described to me the remarkable commitment involved in becoming volunteer firefighters. I knew an investment of at least 100 hours in training was necessary in many cases before volunteers would be allowed to perform tasks required of rural firefighters, but when the women talked about entire weekends devoted to long training sessions, I could see the commitment was actually one shared by the family as a whole. They mentioned the ubiquitous pager, the 24/7-365 availability, Christmas dinners interrupted, late night calls, and how firefighting could take top priority in their lives without notice. They also stressed the inevitable risks their husbands face when responding to calls, and I could see it was a constant concern for them.
And of course we must always remember that rural volunteer firefighters, unlike professionals, also have day jobs. They are farmers, plumbers, auto mechanics or store clerks who sacrifice their off-hours to respond when their neighbours are in crisis and dial 9-1-1. They must not only be committed, prepared and dedicated, but tireless as well.
As with most research, only a fraction of what I've learned about volunteer firefighters will actually make it into the manuscript, as the characters in this case are minor and only appear in one chapter. Nevertheless, I've learned things that make me much more appreciative of the individuals who commit themselves to a second career as a volunteer firefighter, and I'm thankful their counterparts are standing by to respond here in rural Grenville County, should I ever need them at my home.
Take some time to learn more about volunteer firefighters in your region, and support them wholeheartedly whenever you have the opportunity!