Half a century on the job is an incredible run by any standard. But even more so when those 50 years have been spent battling blazes and saving lives.
That’s the achievement of Ken Henry, who just this week was honoured for five decades with the Petrolia/North Enniskillen Fire Department. Originally from Sarnia, Henry came to Petrolia at age three and has called the town home ever since.
“I didn’t know much about it,” Henry recalls on joining the department Oct. 4, 1971. He was working at a local service station when the fire chief of the day came by looking for recruits. The pair chatted and soon enough Henry had joined the 17 member strong department, based out of its former headquarters at town hall.
He didn’t know it at the time but Henry would become a staple in the fire department for the next 50 years. While the nature of the volunteer firefighting profession will always be somewhat constant – men and women dispatched to help people and places in need – Henry reflected on all the change that’s taken place during his career.
Much of this has come through the equipment used to fight fires. When Henry began the department had a 1946 Chevy and 1957 Ford in their fire truck fleet. Today the Petrolia department have trucks that are far more technologically advanced, which put an emphasis on foam retardant and can raise a platform 110 feet into the air.
“It’s a heck of a lot easier standing in that platform bucket than it is standing with your feet on the rungs of a ladder,” says Henry.
As safety standards evolved so did the gear. When Henry started hip boots, rubber coats and a hat made up a firefighter’s bunker gear and it all was shared among the team.
Now each member has their own specially fitted gear. And more of it too, often around 60 pounds worth. The increased weight is quite clear during summer calls in the heat, says Henry.
Firefighting is a dangerous calling so Henry feels fortunate to have never been seriously injured on the job. But he does remember a house call where a violent explosion blew two of his brothers down the stairs in front of him – luckily without serious injuries. Henry says during his 50 years fighting fires in Petrolia, not one firefighter has been lost.
The nature of the calls have also changed, Henry says. When he began, barn fires were a constant event. This was especially the case with bank barns storing hay that would spontaneously combust. But with better wiring and better machinery the barn fires have lessened over time.
More recently the fire department has taken on the role of assisting paramedics on medical calls. Henry says these are some of the most difficult. Often drug overdoses are involved and first responders are not always able to bring back the person in need. It’s a high stress and mentally taxing job, so Henry says he finds comfort being able to talk through issues with his fellow firefighters. “You communicate, you visit and everybody knows what’s going on. You’re talking to guys that have the same problems as yourself, so you talk things out and discuss stuff,” he says.
It’s not just the firefighters the job wears on; it is their families, too. “I’ve been sitting down having a Christmas dinner and when the alarm goes – you’ve got to go,” says Henry. He remembers leaving a New Year’s Eve party at 6 pm and not returning until 12 hours later, well past the midnight revelry.
“So that party went by the wayside,” he jokes. “But that happens all the time, you don’t know when there’s going to be a fire.”
Henry thanks his wife for putting up with his countless bolts out the door over the years to answer the call for help.
Three of those calls stand out for Henry.
One was a fire at the Fairbank House and another a blaze that took the whole top story off the Masonic building at the east edge of downtown.
But the biggest was 1989 when town hall erupted in flames, devastating the iconic building. Firefighters were on scene through one day and into the next during the dead of winter. Some were going into the building to try to remove historic artifacts and town records as water was poured on the building in the hopes of saving it. Only the shell of the building remained when the flames at the former fire hall were finally extinguished.
Fire trucks from Sarnia, Corunna, Wyoming and Oil Springs attended the scene that day. While the damage was great, Henry says it was a sign of the strong companionship Petrolia/North Enniskillen has with neighbouring departments.
“We all work together,” says Henry. A mutual aid system means departments ask for backup in the form of water, trucks or firefighters themselves. Henry says sometimes they’ll even need all three, a request they’re always eager to comply with.
Lately Henry has focused his efforts on driving the trucks and pumping the water on scene. It’s challenging work; turning the trucks requires a delicate touch to avoid wiping out on a curb or ending up in a ditch. And water trucks can contain up to 3,000 gallons that needs to get pumping to put out the flames. His fellow firefighters say Henry is one of the best pumper operators the department has.
While he celebrates the golden milestone, Henry plans to retire at the end of the year. “I think that’s enough,” he says.
He points out he’s still passing all his physicals, but that it’s time to settle down with family, do a little travelling and pass the torch after a long, distinguished career.
“Good to get some other people in there,” Henry says. “It’s been a long time.”
Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent