With Deputy-fire Chief Joe Grela
Meadow Lake Fire and Rescue held a reunion on Saturday (May 11) in celebration of its 81st anniversary. Deputy-fire chief Joe Grela spoke with Northern Pride ahead of the event and talked about his career with the department, which has spanned more than two decades.
Q: Why did the department organize a reunion this year?
A: Last year was the 80th anniversary of the fire department and we didn’t really do anything about it. One of our retired captains, Louis Gratton, thought we should have a reunion, and we thought that was a good idea. It’s not something we do every year. It’s basically something to celebrate our 80th anniversary – this year it’s the 81st – but we didn’t actually have a chance to get it going last year. It’s good to see some of the older members and other members who have been on the department over the years.
Q: How many full-time members are there?
A: Fire chief Neil Marsh is full-time. The rest of us are basically volunteers or paid on-call.
Q: How long have you been with the department?
A: For 22 years. I started out as a firefighter and was promoted to captain in 1996. And then I was promoted to deputy-fire chief and I’ve held that position since then.
Q: Why did you decide to become a firefighter in the first place?
A: Basically, when I first moved to town and I started working at the Meadow Lake hospital, I was looking to get involved with the community. There was an ad for people to join the fire department. I thought, “Geez, that might be interesting.” So I joined the fire department and 20-something years later, I’m still here.
Q: There is a lot of ways to get involved in the community. What drew you to this?
A: It was something I was always interested in. When I was a kid, I always used to watch (the television show) Emergency! I was always interested in things like that.
Q: What was the training process like back then, compared to today?
A: Back then, there wasn’t as much training. Basically, we were taught by experience. Some of the more experienced guys would show you a few things and show you what to do. A few times we would come down in the evenings and the fire chief would show us certain things like how to run the pumper and things like that. We’d do little bits of training by module. The first year (1995) I actually went to fire school in Vermilion. I’ve been there three times to do different training. It was training opportunities that were offered. For me, if there’s any opportunity that comes up, I like to take it so I know I’m prepared and know how to do the job properly and safely.
Q: Can you remember a time when you were in over your head as a rookie?
A: When you first join, you’re not allowed to enter a burning building until so many months on the department. My first actual call was a trailer fire. There used to be a trailer court on Railway Avenue. Basically, I was setting up pylons and directing traffic. Then, little by little, you had more training and got more familiar with the equipment. The first fire I went into was, I think, at a restaurant on Railway Avenue (now Mack’s Steakhouse). That was my first actual interior attack.
Q: Are there ever times when you’re on scene and overwhelmed by smoke or fire?
A: Not for me anymore really. I know what to look for and know what to do. The freakiest fire I experienced was when the Empire Hotel burnt down. I was on one of the attack crews and we were up on the second floor. This was actually before we had thermal imaging cameras. The smoke was very thick. The guy I went in with, he was right in front of me and I couldn’t even see him. We’re basically crawling on our hands and knees and trying to feel our way to the source of the fire. Initially we didn’t have ventilation set up. Once they opened the door on the second floor, we were able to get ventilation and you could actually see what you were doing. By that time, the roof started collapsing, so we had to pull out and do an exterior attack.
Q: Is responding to fires still scary?
A: Not as much as it used to be. Now I know a lot more. Now, I don’t usually do a lot of interior attack anymore. Although, I do enjoy it when I do get the opportunnity.
Q: Have you ever responded to a scene where someone didn’t survive?
A: Yes, actually. Since I’ve been on the department, there was a house nearby where two young children died in a fire (close to 15 years ago). That one really affected me quite a lot. I can remember pulling up to that house and there were flames coming out the bedroom window where the children were found. It was chaotic for sure. People were saying, “There are kids in there.” But, of course, we can’t just rush in because we have to set up our hose lines to protect ourselves before we can go in.
Q: That sounds like a troubling aspect of the job. You have to consider the safety of yourselves and others, but you have to get in there too.
A: You can’t. Because if something happens to you, who’s going to rescue you, right? We have to make sure we’re protected with a water supply and things like that. We can’t just rush into a burning building. Like I said, that was one of the most chaotic ones that I can remember pulling up on scene.
Q: Is there any such thing as a regular call?
A: It varies from year-to-year. One year you’ll have a lot of motor vehicle collisions. Some years you’ll have a lot of structure fires. This year, I think we’ve had one structural fire over the winter. Most things this year have been false alarms, but we’ve had a few motor vehicle collisions too. A lot of the new vehicles have air bags all over the place. So, that’s another thing we have to careful of. Even when we’re cutting, a lot of the vehicles have high pressure cylinders in the posts, and if you accidentally cut one of those, that’s basically a pressure vessel, so we have to be a lot more careful than we used to be. We have to be more aware of the safety features in the vehicles nowadays.
Q: How else has technological change affected your job?
A: When I first started, we had a big set of jaws with a cutter and spreader in one. It was actually quite a big piece of equipment. It actually took two guys to run it unless you were one of the bigger guys, then you could handle it by yourself. Probably about five years ago we got a new set of jaws – a smaller cutter and a spreader separately. They’re a lot lighter and they’re a lot smaller, so they’re easier to use. And probably more effective because they have more power. The new vehicles come with reinforced metals, so it’s a lot harder to cut. You need a tool with more cutting power.
Q: Wildfires are a big concern in this part of the province come summer. Is that something the fire department deals with?
A: The Ministry of Environment looks after most of that. The only time we get involved is if the fire is threatening cottages or people’s homes in the forest. We’re not equipped to fight forest fires. We can do grass fires and things like that. The government has portable pumps, has access to water bombers and Caterpillars. It’s actually quite different.
Q: Tell me about your day job.
A: I’m a maintenance manager for the health region – that’s my full-time job. In September, it will be 22 years I’ve been in Meadow Lake. I grew up around Prince Albert. I lived on a farm for 16 years and then moved into Prince Albert. Then we moved up to Meadow Lake from Saskatoon.
Q: Do you have any children?
A: My family is growing up now. My son Brenden finished his first year of university in Regina, actually in pre-journalism. My daughter Sara is finishing up Grade 9 at Jonas Samson Junior High School. My wife Monica works at the clinic.
Q: Any hobbies?
A: For hobbies, I play hockey. I like fishing, boating, walking in the summer. A lot of sports.
Q: Why is having this reunion important to you?
A: I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of the guys who have been on the department. When Russ Nelson (former fire chief) passed away (in January), a lot of the guys who were on the department previously attended the funeral. So, it was nice to see those guys, because you don’t see them that often. This way, we can socialize under more happy terms as compared to something like that. I know I’ve seen a lot of people come and go through the department over the years.
Feedback? Text it at 240-4553 or email firstname.lastname@example.org