“I enjoy what I’m doing as much now as I did when I started.”
These are the words of Oliver Fire Chief Bob Graham, who has been fighting fires as a volunteer for 30 years.
Graham was recently awarded the Canadian Volunteer Fire Services Association’s (CVSFA) Municipal Long Service Award.
The CVFSA gives out awards to recognize 20, 25 and 30 years of service for volunteer firefighters.
“I enjoy it, I like the camaraderie,” said Graham. “And I like the fact that we are doing a very valuable community service.”
The average service time is 15 years for volunteer firefighters, according to Graham.
Over his 30 years, Graham has celebrated many milestones — one when he became Oliver’s deputy fire chief in 2011, and another when appointed fire chief in 2017.
Graham says fires have gotten only hotter and harder to fight over the last 30 years.
“Buildings now are much different from when I started in the fire department,” said Graham.
“We had what we classify now as heritage-style buildings, which were more solid wood. Furniture was less synthetic.
“Now we have lightweight trusses, manufactured wood products with a lot more glue, lots of synthetics in the house. So now fires burn faster and hotter.
“There’s a greater risk to firefighters now than there was 30 years ago.”
He said it’s not only the fires that have grown more dangerous over time, but previously unrecognized dangers have become better understood.
“Probably the biggest killer of firefighters is cancer,” said Graham.
“Cancer comes from all of the chemicals that are in residential and car fires now, from so many synthetics.”
As the risks have grown, Graham notes so have the improvements in how the firefighters are equipped to handle them.
“Our technology has improved, we have the thermal imaging cameras we didn’t have then. Our respirators are much better,” he said.
“Even the trucks are better equipped then they were when I first started, we rode on the back of the fire truck. Now everyone rides in an enclosed cab.
“Now, we really focus on the guys being all decontaminated, that all the gear they’re wearing is washed properly, and that they’re all looked after.
”Those are all things that we think about now that we didn’t know about 30 years ago.”
Another change is in the training and education that firefighters go through before they’re accepted into the fire department.
Years ago, Graham said all you needed to do was show up to be given gear and sent out to fight a fire. Now, there’s a 10-week training program recruits go through before they can join the crew in Oliver.
Looking back on his years of experience, the one fire that most sticks out to Graham is the 2011 blaze that tore through the South Okanagan Secondary School, which at the time was under renovation.
“Probably the biggest fire was the Oliver high school,” said Graham.
“When that burnt down a few years ago now. The building was under renovation at the time, and it was a very difficult fire to extinguish.
“A lot of it was very open, material had been taken out, (and) fire stops had been taken out to do the renovations. It was a very difficult fire.”
While the CVFSA currently awards up to 30 years, when asked whether the organization would make up a new one to recognize 35 or 40 years of service, Graham responded with a laugh.
“I doubt it,” he said.
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