'A new era': Witless Bay fire department is ablaze with wave of young recruits

·5 min read
The Witless Bay Volunteer fire department has grown to over 30 members, more than half of whom are under 30 years old. (Alex Kennedy/CBC - image credit)
The Witless Bay Volunteer fire department has grown to over 30 members, more than half of whom are under 30 years old. (Alex Kennedy/CBC - image credit)
Alex Kennedy/CBC
Alex Kennedy/CBC

The crew at the Witless Bay fire department has a whole new look these days: a new logo on their helmets, and a surge of young people volunteering.

The department, on Newfoundland's Southern Shore, has 31 firefighters on its roster. That's nearing a record, according to Chief Jack Gatherall, who says young people are fuelling the increase.

More than half of the department's firefighters are between the ages of 19 and 30, putting the average age of the fire hall at just 33 years old, said Gatherall.

Gatherall accounts the jump in younger involvement to things like a push on the department's social media, word of mouth, and an effort to give opportunities to people in post-secondary education.

"We've really put a niche, a focus on trying to attract the young crowd.… We've found that the young crowd, they go back and tell their friends, 'You should see this place, it beats just driving around town on a Thursday night," Gatherall said in an interview earlier this month.

"If we can get them when they're in post-secondary … they have a bit of influence to stay in this area versus if we try to find somebody…If we can get them in here, at least they have a reason to try and stay in our region."

Alex Kennedy/CBC
Alex Kennedy/CBC

At 26, Gatherall is part of the youth movement himself. He started in the department at 19, the minimum age to be a volunteer firefighter.

"When I was four or five years old I used to have a video called Fire and Rescue. It was a video from the '90s. And Mom and Dad used to play it and of course I'd be rappelling off the buildings, which would be the couch, or putting out a bonfire with my Super Soaker gun," he said with a laugh. "So I've always had a passion for it"

'It's almost like a new era'

The volunteers gather at the fire hall every Thursday to run through training drills and scenarios, which can range from using tools like hoses and the Jaws of Life or simulating fires and accidents on their training grounds.

Gatherall says he's been focused on creating good energy within the department, working to keep things light to balance the serious nature of firefighting.

It's partially what attracted Connor O'Driscoll, who has been a volunteer firefighter since May, to the group. He joined the department the day he turned 19.

Alex Kennedy/CBC
Alex Kennedy/CBC

"Aside from the skills I've been learning like dealing with fires and the signs of a house fire, the social aspect here is really nice," he said. "Everyone is really close.… It's nice because we can't talk to other people about the calls, but we talk to each other and debrief.

"It's refreshing," O'Driscoll added. "It's almost like a new era is starting to come into the fire hall."

Other firefighters, like McKenna Walsh, 21, who joined in April, and Daniel Vickers, 20, who's been there just over a year, have familial connections to the department.

Walsh, who recently graduated from nursing school in St. John's, sees volunteering in the department as a way to use her medical skills in the field and gain new experiences to help in nursing.

"There always is a bit of worry, I guess. You don't know what you're going to walk on to when you go to a scene. But I think everybody here is prepared for that, and we all have each other to lean back on when things are tough," she said.

"So you don't need to worry as much when you're surrounded by knowledgeable people."

Alex Kennedy/CBC
Alex Kennedy/CBC

Vickers even got to use what he learned recently, responding to a car accident he witnessed near Gambo earlier in the month.

"When you're out around, b'y, you get a lot of knowledge on a lot of stuff. Just keeping people calm and, you know, explaining what's going to happen and what we're going to do and just helping out at the best of your ability," Vickers said.

"I like helping people, and I think a lot of people around here really appreciate that too."

There's nothing like a fire department. We're like a family up here. - Jack Gatherall

Vickers says it's been great to learn from the longer-serving volunteers, adding the surge of young people coming into the department will likely attract more youth.

That's good news for Crystal Kelly — a volunteer of 15 years — who says it's great to see a new generation take over the fire department.

"I think a lot of it is from having a young chief," she said. "He got the movement going, and everyone wanted to be a part of it. The training has stepped up and it's very exciting. And every Thursday we come up here, Jack makes it fun."

Alex Kennedy/CBC
Alex Kennedy/CBC

Gatherall hopes this wave of youth involvement is just the beginning and that the department will grow to around 40 members by the end of the year.

He is also working to create a junior firefighter program to give teenagers the chance to learn firefighting skills and be part of the group so they can graduate into full-fledged volunteers when they're old enough.

Gatherall says he's always looking for people to become part of the family.

"There's nothing like a fire department. We're like a family up here," he said.

"We've got people up here, I don't think they'll ever retire. They'll never retire as a volunteer. It's a lifestyle. And like myself, I don't know what I'd be doing on Thursday if I wasn't a volunteer."

Witless Bay Volunteer Fire Department/Facebook
Witless Bay Volunteer Fire Department/Facebook

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