All men respond- The early days of the Stanhope Fire Department

firefighters in front of blaze

It’s said that a volunteer fire department is the backbone of a community and in Stanhope, no truer words could be spoken.

After years of Council consideration about a creating a fire department, new councillor Elvin Johnson formally pitched the idea to his colleagues in 1971. It didn’t take long for Council to get things rolling and by the end of the year, a tender was issued for the first fire truck and a month later Richard “Dick” Kinsman was appointed the first Fire Chief.

In January 1973, the first Fire Committee was created, and three successive bylaws allowed for the establishment of the Stanhope Fire Department; participation in a new Mutual Aid system with other municipalities; and the purchase of the Township’s first fire truck from C.E. Hickey for $28,328. In March 1973, MPP Glen Hodgson and MP Bill Scott were asked about a grant to build a firehall and a second Fire Department category was created in the Township budget, to accommodate the fire truck purchase. Workmen’s Compensation coverage for firefighters was estimated at $61.50. As part of the truck purchase, a portable pump arrived first and it, in the back of the Fire Chief’s personal pickup truck, was the first front-line suppression apparatus in Stanhope. In May, when that shiny new fire truck arrived at the not-quite-finished new fire hall there were 20 eager volunteer firefighters at the ready, including Elvin Johnson and his two eldest sons. His youngest son, Ralph, joined later and is today a Captain. By June, the fire hall was finished, an emergency fire phone system was installed, and the Fire Underwriter’s Association officially recognized Stanhope Township as having an adequate firefighting system. Today, those fire services have far exceeded “adequate”.

But let’s back up a bit. Prior to this flurry of formalization, fire protection is first mentioned in Council Minutes in 1933 when Bylaw 507 appointed Halls Lake resident Arthur Oliver as an Honorary Fire Warden under orders from the Forestry Department. Through to the 1960s the annually appointed Fire Wardens were variously Arthur Oliver, Charlie McPhail, Oscar Sisson or Milton Dawson and transactions included things like a $9.75 firefighting bill being sent to the Salvation Army Camp on the Hawk River. Fire Wardens were appointed by Council under the auspices of the Department of Lands and Forests (now MNRF) to issue fire permits and to go to bush fires, but structure fires remained the realm of neighbourly bucket brigades, and motor vehicle accidents were the purview of the police. In the 1950s, Council expanded the Fire Warden appointments to specific communities such as Hawk Lake, Maple Lake and Boshkung, and continued to rely on the Department of Lands and Forest for bigger firefighting needs. The first time Stanhope charged a property owner for firefighting services was in 1957 and the bill was $2.15. The 1968 Township budget formally recognized the Fire Department as its own cost centre with a $200 budget which rose to $400 in 1969, and to $800 in  1971 as we learned earlier.

men posing in firefighter gear
The Original Stanhope Fire Department wearing their petch coats and interesting footwear, some of which includes snowmobile boots: L to R, Back Row: Ken Martin, Harold Barjarow, Jack Harrison, Ray Johnson, Richard Kinsman- Chief, Ross Ballantyne-Captain, Larry Hewitt, Jim Foster, Bill Cowan, Jim Moore-Captain, Dave Johnson. Front Row: Neil Griffin, Jack Kinsman-Captain, hector Arsenault, Gerald Bain-Deputy Chief, Gord Martin, Harry Martin, Alvin Johnson. Absent: Bob Davis, Bob Jennings.
Photo taken January 19, 1974, courtesy of the Township of Algonquin Highlands.

This brings us back to the start of our story, with the first formal Fire Department in 1974 which then-Reeve Jim Harrison thought was one of the best moves the township could have made. “Those fellows worked hard for the people. Not for the township but for the people,” he said recently.

In 1975 firefighters received their first paid honorarium which was $100 for the Chief; and slowly but steadily, growth continued. There were coverage agreements with neighbouring communities and with the Ministry of Natural Resources; a phone was installed in the fire hall; two-way radios were purchased; and a second truck, a ¾ ton panel truck, was acquired for $2,950. A First Response system for medical calls was considered in 1976 but didn’t materialize until years later when a smaller team of firefighters called First Responders received specialized training. In 1977 the department purchased its first (used) tanker, and received a $128,000 Wintario grant for the construction of what is now the Stanhope Firefighters’ Community Hall on North Shore Rd. The firefighters built it themselves.

By 1978 the fledgling department hit a rough patch and over the next year or so, various conflicts, resignations and suspensions created a very difficult and confusing time for the community and for Council. After a series of recommendations from the Fire Marshal’s Office were implemented in late 1979, the department got back on track with a new Fire Chief.

First Aid and “casualty care” courses came next, as did membership in the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, the purchase of an extricator for car accidents and a fee of $6.95 per hour for firefighters responding into Minden. By 1983 the annual Fire Department budget reached $26,000, then $34,000, then $38,000. In 1983 the Fire Department acquired Motorola pagers, which bring us to: how did they know there was a fire call?

Well, dispatching calls was very different than now: there was no 911 and, in fact, no addresses; folks just knew where people lived or it was “past Wilfred’s place by the blue mailbox, on the left” … and somehow everyone got there. The dispatch system was a series of Bell Telephone party lines: five in private homes, one in the fire hall and one in the Township office. The Fire Phone Ladies who agreed to have a Fire Phone installed in their home were wives of firefighters who were available and willing – but never paid, to answer emergency calls. “Available” meant they didn’t work outside the home, and “willing” not only meant being available 24 hours a day, it also meant telling other Fire Phone Ladies if they were going out so that the line was always monitored. It was, after all, a land line attached to a wall… The emergency number was 489-2222 and any one of five women would answer the phone with “Stanhope Fire Department, what is your emergency?”.

While the person who answered the call took down the information, other Fire Phone Ladies on the party line would hang up and call police or ambulance if needed. To notify the firefighters, a telephone tree allowed each Fire Phone Lady to call her own set of men. Julie Chadwick, a Fire Phone Lady for 18 years recalls the mad dash to locate those in need. “Firefighters would ask if they were turning left or right at the old oak tree and if we didn’t know, we’d look at paper maps to figure it out. Amongst the group of us we knew, or figured out, where Mary lived,” she said. The old numbering systems and maps provided by lake associations were vital in helping water access folks, but 911 and cell phones have rendered them obsolete. Privacy regulations didn’t exist then, so it wasn’t uncommon to hear that Mary had taken a fall and to remember that she was just home from hospital and to use the side door. Today it would be an anonymous, “…respond to 123 Main Street for a 61-year-old female who has fallen, recently hospitalized”.

Even when individual pagers were assigned to each firefighter in 1983, Fire Phone Ladies still called their firefighters to ensure they’d received the page and to pass on the directions. The Fire Phone Ladies were retired in 2004 when 911 was implemented and dispatch services were hired out to a third party. Their invaluable contribution to the fire service warrants deep gratitude. The Fire Phone Ladies were just one aspect of the extraordinary community commitment that makes up the fire service. They were very different days when membership in the fire department made up much of a firefighter’s social circle. After all, a person doesn’t join a volunteer fire department, a family does!

Child on Santa's lap
Fire Santa with unknown child, undated.

Fire families hosted and attended pot-luck dinners and dances for fun, or to raise money. There were children’s Hallowe’en parties and the well-known children and seniors’ Christmas party where Minden’s Hyland Crest residents were brought up to Stanhope for the afternoon; and where dozens of gifts, acquired through donation and wrapped, were given out by a firefighter in a Santa costume. All volunteer. “I remember Bob Jennings from Loralea arriving to the Christmas party in a Santa suit on a snowmobile,” recalls Jim Moore, a member of that original 1974 brigade and retired municipal Chief Building Official. “We did everything back then, and everything we did was for the community,” he noted fondly.

ad for fireman's dance
Photo courtesy of “The Times”, 1967.

In the earlier years, firefighters raised funds for equipment through raffle tickets, spaghetti dinners and bingo nights. In the 1990s they ran the county-wide Firefighters’ Games in tests of skill and strength; organized a massive annual yard sale, and they were instrumental in helping run the popular but now-defunct Stanhope Triathlon. And for many years, the Stanhope Fire Department, now called Station 80 has been a staple at events like the Halls Hawk Lakes Property Owners Association meeting where a financial donation has always been gratefully received.

One of Stanhope Fire Department’s greatest strengths was the generosity of its Fire Wives and other supporters who did everything from taking food to hungry firefighters on long scenes, to bundling up clothes for those who lost their homes, to once even wrapping gifts on Christmas Eve so the kids from the house fire had a Christmas morning. Much of the credit for that generosity goes to Ann Barker.

This story, of course, is about firefighters and being one is a difficult role wrapped firmly in dedication, stoicism and pride. It means unpredictable disruptions to lifestyle patterns. A call can come in at any time, resulting in missed meals, an empty seat at holiday dinners, being woken in the middle of the night, no breakfast, no bathroom; and those at home wondering for hours if everyone is safe. Many an employer has allowed their worker to leave a job; many a spouse has been left in a restaurant when the pager goes off.

It isn’t uncommon for firefighters to find someone they know at the other end of the call, or to hear the address of a friend come across the radio. For an honorarium of less than $8,000 per year, volunteer firefighters encounter what most people avoid: crumpled vehicles, the cries of the injured, blood, broken bones and even the dead. They pry people out of cars, comfort the anxious, and work side by side with paramedics. They attack fires as numb homeowners stand helplessly by. As the old saying goes: when everyone else is running out, they’re running in.

“Sometimes you wake up at night and those faces are staring at you from forty years ago. It stays with you,” said one retired firefighter, recalling a particular motor vehicle accident with multiple fatalities. Another recalls comforting a man on whom a building had fallen when they both knew he would die when the building was lifted.

While many stories are daunting, others are uplifting – teaching kids about fire safety, rescuing a pet from a smoke-filled room, successfully stopping a fire and ultimately, saving lives.

Martyn Mavor rescues a kitten from the 1994 housefire at Foster’s Store.
Photo by Carol Moffatt.

“It certainly is gratifying to arrive and know you can help. You can see it in people’s faces, that things are going to get better,’ said retired Fire Chief John Hogg in 2013 at the end of his 33 years with Stanhope/Station 80.

This past year, attending medical calls reached a new level of dedication (and pressure) with the additional dispatch message of whether or not a patient “… screens positive for COVID-19”.

Volunteer firefighters attend weekly training nights to meet legislated standards, and to maintain vehicles and equipment. All firefighters in Ontario are trained to the same standards whether they serve with Toronto or Algonquin Highlands. What specific services a fire department offers, and is trained for, is determined by a municipal Council based on need and ability to pay.

As the community has grown so have its needs and expectations, pushing legislation and liability to the fore. The dinners and dances have (sadly) gone by the wayside, but at least firefighters no longer have to sell raffle tickets for equipment, all of which is provided by the Township through the tax levy.

Algonquin Highlands Fire Services, ice and water rescue training, 2011.
Photo by Carol Moffatt.

Fire services include structure and wildfire firefighting, defibrillation, all three levels of ice and water rescue, auto extrication, emergency patient care, hazardous materials handling, remote, fast water and high-level rescue, and much more. Fire calls are down, medical calls are up, and Stanhope/Station 80 gets around 150 calls a year.

Ice and water rescue was a hotly debated topic in the early 1990s, first voted down by Council in 1992 but approved four years later. In 2019 the “Two Hatter” debate was settled, a divisive issue across the province on whether careered firefighters should be permitted to volunteer on their personal time. It was a longstanding issue from which the Stanhope Fire Department benefitted greatly by virtue not only of having careered firefighters bring training and confidence to volunteers, but also where volunteers have spring-boarded into full-time careers.

A pump in the back of a pickup truck seems very old timey in the face of today’s pumpers, tankers, snowmobiles, auto extrication equipment, ATVs, boats and a broad range of tools and equipment. The single door firehall has been thrice expanded; rubber boots and petch coats have long been replaced with $3,000 worth of gear per firefighter.

The municipal amalgamation of 2000 brought the Stanhope, Dorset and Oxtongue Lake Fire Departments under the umbrella of Algonquin Highlands Fire Services and that initial 1968 Stanhope Fire Department budget of $200 is just over $1 million for all three firehalls.

Algonquin Highlands Township provides a firefighter insurance program and a mental health strategy. Those 20 firefighters now number more than 50 which, over the years, has included many women.

Party lines and telephone trees have been replaced with a digital radio system and in the last couple years, a cell phone app. The old points system for paying firefighters has been replaced with an hourly wage but it’s still not very much for what they do.

In 2023 the Stanhope firehall will celebrate its 50th anniversary of public service. There have been ups and down, tears and laughter, good times and struggles – but there’s always been progress. We’re a long way from those 20 guys in petch coats and snowmobile boots, and while the who and the how has changed, the commitment of volunteer firefighters to this community has never wavered. Nor has the pride.

By Carol Moffatt

*Editor’s Note: Carol Moffatt is one of the many Fire Wives who has proudly served food in the middle of the night, wrapped gifts, been abandoned in restaurants and lain awake waiting to hear that a vehicle is “back in station, in service”. Her husband Tony Aymong is a retired Toronto firefighter, a two-hatter who has served on Station 80 – Stanhope for 40 years.