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NICHOLAS MERCER: Volunteer firefighting is a balancing act

Volunteer firefighters have to find a balance between their regular lives and the times when they're called on to help their community.
Volunteer firefighters have to find a balance between their regular lives and the times when they're called on to help their community. - 123RF Stock Photo

Paul MacDonald can’t pinpoint the exact reason he joined his local fire department.

It is a question he has often asked himself during his 23 years with the Lark/York Harbour Volunteer Fire Department.

Perhaps it starts at childhood for the 42-year-old.

As a child growing up in Lark Harbour, MacDonald remembers always being fascinated with the fire department and what went on inside of the bay doors.

“It is nice to have some sort of part in the community,” he said. “Volunteers are hard to come by these days and the communities need any bit of help they can find.”

For the last four years, MacDonald has served the communities of Lark Harbour and York Harbour as the fire chief.


A small group with just 14 members, the York/Lark Harbour department is a dedicated one. Often, they’ll have 6-7 members attend a fire call at any one time.

It can be difficult though.

There are seven members of the department who work in Corner Brook. The west coast city is anywhere from a 50-minute to an hour drive away should a fire call come in.

That's not the only work complication. MacDonald is a seasonal worker and might not be available when it's time to head back to work. He prays there isn’t a call during the regular work hours.

To say they are constantly looking for volunteers may be an understatement.

However, that is life in a volunteer fire department.

It is a balance between making sure a pager’s battery is topped up and getting to work on time.

“Sometimes there is a call and you have to go at 2 a.m.,” said MacDonald. “You might not get back until 7 a.m. and then you have to be at work.”

It isn’t easy being a volunteer firefighter in a community, big or small.

Often, their home lives and their firefighting lives spill into each other. They become tangled and start to mirror the other.

Firefighters respond to calls to help people who can be either neighbours, relatives or friends.

In some cases, they’re probably all three.

It’s stressful and can play on your mind when you’re a watching people you know go through a tragedy.

In the last year, the Lark and York Harbour department lost a veteran firefighter after he had trouble processing a violent car accident in which two people were killed. The victims were known to him.

Then, MacDonald said the department brought in counsellors to help his firefighters deal with what they had just witnessed.

Sometimes there isn’t any such help. Sometimes firefighters are left to figure it out on their own.

“After a while, you can become numb to it,” said MacDonald.

Growing up in a small town, I know plenty of volunteer firefighters. They’re town councillors, small business owners and employees.

They work long hours and different times in the day. Still, when the inevitable call comes, they’re there where needed.

I’ve heard and seen plenty of instances where these men and women have dropped everything to answer the call.

Every firefighter deserves to be commended for the work they do. Most of us would hightail at the first sight of a fire.

Next time you see a firefighter in your community, shake their hand to let them know they’re appreciated.

Chances are, they’ve helped someone you know.

Nicholas Mercer is the online editor with The Western Star. He lives in Corner Brook and can be reached at

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