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Home News From horse drawn carriages to computer operated equipment, the Prince Albert Fire Department has come a long way in 135 years

From horse drawn carriages to computer operated equipment, the Prince Albert Fire Department has come a long way in 135 years

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From horse drawn carriages to computer operated equipment, the Prince Albert Fire Department has come a long way in 135 years
Volunteer firefighters pose for a photo outside the Number Two Company Fire Hall built in the central part of the Town of Prince Albert. -- Photo courtesy of the Prince Albert Fire Department

A lot has changed in the last 135 years, but one thing remains unchanged—Prince Albert firefighters are still extinguishing fires.

The Prince Albert Fire Department celebrated 135 years of service on March 21. The names and faces have changed over the years, but the commitment to protecting Prince Albert residents hasn’t.

“It’s a milestone that not a lot of industry departments, in North America anyway, have had,” Chief Kris Olsen said. “It takes us all the way back to when Prince Albert was part of the Northwest Territories and was of town status. A lot has changed, and it’s a milestone to be proud of.”

The Town of Prince Albert had an informal volunteer fire brigade starting in 1883, but the group’s poor performance led City Council to pass a bylaw created a formal town fire department in 1887. Historians Ross and Dori Jardine wrote in their 1981 history of the Prince Albert Fire Department that “high fire losses and totally ineffectual firefighting” led to the change.

Two fire companies were created following a public meeting—one located in Goschen, then a Hudson Bay Company site, and another in the Town of Prince Albert. The Prince Albert fire hall had 25 volunteers, and fire committee’s policy was to pay $5 to the first team of horses to reach the fire hall and pull the fire wagon to the fire.

The policy also gave $3 to the first team to arrive with the water cart and two or more barrels of water.

Olsen said most early firefighting techniques and gear were so hazardous they would trigger an Occupational Health and Safety Investigation if used today. However, he’s still grateful for the early firefighters who paved the way for what the department became.

“We have a lot of memorabilia, photos, journals, those kinds of things, and I think it’s always impressed upon our new members to look back at our past and honour those members who have gone before us and the advances that they’ve made in firefighting and rescue techniques,” he said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We really wouldn’t.

“Technology has come to play,” Olsen said. “We have lighter gear that can withstand more heat. We have particle filtering balaclavas that we wear that protect the skin, your largest organ, from absorbing the carcinogens that we know are in fires today that are cancer causing, lots of advances, and that’s just to name a few.”

While the equipment has changed, the teamwork and spirit of camaraderie hasn’t. Former Prince Albert Fire Chief Jim Wilm started with the Fire Department as an alarm room operator on Jan. 13, 1964. He eventually worked his up to the top job, and said he never enjoyed his career choice.

“We worked in shifts and you developed a partnership with one another,” Wilm remembered. “You learned very quickly if something happens, we’re all in it together.

“It was a very satisfying career, very hectic at times, but that’s what you went in it for. You went there and your job was to protect and help and that’s what you did. You made sure people were safe.”

Most of Wilm’s memories from his firefighting days are positive ones, but there are a few negatives. He remembers one winter in particular when they were called to two major fires that resulted in the deaths of eight people—four in each blaze.

Prince Albert firefighters Marlon LaBar (left) and Trevor Ring (right) offer some tips while manning a Prince Albert Fire Department display booth during Fire Prevention Week in October 2016. — Herald file photo.

Despite the rough periods, Wilm said he never regretted joining the department.

“To me, it was very satisfying to be able to do something to help those in situations where they may not have been able to help themselves,” he said. “I was (part of) a crew of firefighters, and we depended on them to be there when they were needed.

“It was a good career. I don’t regret it.”

Like Olsen, Wilm said firefighting techniques have changed significantly over the last 135 years. Both say they’re glad today’s crews don’t have to use the horse-drawn carriages and man-powered pumps like the brigades of old.

“Over the years, it was a lot of handwork, firefighting, and the only way you got it done was to get in there and get at it,” Wilm remembered. “That has changed so much now with the equipment and technology that they have. There’s not one of the firefighters who goes near a fire now without wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus because there are so many chemicals in the air nowadays when there’s a fire. You just can’t take a risk or take the chance. You’ve got to go fully protected.”

“Technology has come to play,” Olsen added. “We have lighter gear that can withstand more heat. We have particle filtering balaclavas that we wear that protect the skin, your largest organ, from absorbing the carcinogens that we know are in fires today that are cancer causing, lots of advances, and that’s just to name a few.”

The Prince Albert Fire Department plans to commemorate their 135 anniversary with facts and photos on their Facebook page before an in-person Open House for Fire Prevention Week in October.

Olsen said they haven’t been able to host the Open House since 2019, so they’re excited to welcome the public back for a tour and celebrate 135 years.

“Barring any other restrictions, we’re excited to take on that event this year and hopefully we get great turnout like we have had in other years,” he said.

“It’s our day to showcase what we do. We open the station to all public and we encourage them to come and learn a little bit more about the fire department.”