Since joining Vernon Fire Rescue Services in 2007, I have never been anything but intrigued by the colourful, rich history of the City of Vernon’s fire department and have never gotten tired of the stories told by its old veterans of days gone by. So when I read the media release for Captain Kim Bolton’s retirement after 35 ½ years of service, I couldn’t help but think it would be a good time to share a brief overview (emphasis on brief) of the 122 years that the Vernon Fire Department has served this community. To do so, I enlisted the help of Dean Wakefield, a Captain in our Prevention Division, whose father was Vernon’s Fire Chief from 1980 to 2000. He presented me with the following:
The original Fire Hall was built in 1891 when the department came into existence. It was located across from the Cenotaph Park at 3003 – 30th Street just south of our current location. The department was then known as the Vernon Fire Brigade. It was an all-volunteer membership and the fire chiefs were paid a small amount by city council to manage the affairs of the department and do some light duties around the fire hall.
In 1894 the fire chief had to start doing inspections of some of the public buildings. The department at that time responded with hand pulled hose carts and horse drawn wagons. In 1939 Vernon’s first full time paid Fire Chief was hired – Fred Little. He also hired 8 fulltime Drivers who were responsible for driving and operating the apparatus at a fire call. The volunteer members either went to the fire station or responded directly to the call itself. Our fire department pretty much stayed the same with 8 drivers until 1951 when Bill Gray, the first fulltime Deputy Chief was hired. The department had 3 companies of volunteer members, 8 drivers, 2 chiefs and 8 live-in fire fighters and in 1962 it took on the responsibility of the ambulance service.
The city had a series of Gamewell fire alarm boxes positioned all over the city. These boxes when activated rang into the fire hall causing a ticker tape style machine to activate and set off the air horn on the roof signaling there was a fire somewhere in town. The paper tape that came out in code corresponded to a box somewhere in the city. The driver would read the code and match it up with the list of boxes in the city and then would identify the box using the map. This is how they knew where to go. This system was in effect until the late 1970’s. In about 1970 the city brought in a direct fire emergency # 1-1-5. If you called this number the “fire phone” would ring in to the fire hall. This was our version of 9-1-1 and it was in effect until the early 1980’s when the emergency number switched to 549-2121. The 9-1-1 service began in 1989 and in that same year, Vernon assumed Regional Fire Dispatch to all the areas.
In 1965 the old fire hall was closed and the current fire hall was finished and became the main fire hall. 1966 saw the department expand again with the addition of a Fire Prevention Officer which was filled by Ken Little who was previously a driver. In 1969 Fred Little retired after serving as chief for over four decades and Ken Little moved once again, this time to Fire Chief with Mark Wakefield moving to Deputy Chief. This year also saw the department increase its ranks to 12 fulltime drivers.
1972 brought another increase to the Fire Prevention Division with a fire inspector position being added. In 1977 the department had 4 shift officers, 20 firefighters, 2 fire prevention personnel, 2 chief officers and 1 secretary. In 1982 the ambulance service shifted to a provincial model and was no longer part of the fire department. In 1985 our ranks were reduced through attrition to 2 chief officers, 4 shift officers, 1 fire inspector and 12 firefighters.
Our present day fire department staffing is comprised of 3 chief officers, 1 emergency coordinator, 4 captains, 1 captain training officer, 1 captain prevention, 23 career firefighters and 36 paid on call firefighters. Our list of staff is completed with 1 administrative assistant and 4 new fulltime dispatchers and 1 part time mechanic.
Over the years, Vernon Fire-Rescue Services has evolved into a public safety agency providing highly technical and diverse services with a mandate to preserve life, property and the environment through the provision of fire suppression, fire prevention/education, and hazardous materials response and rescue services to the citizens of, and visitors to, the city of Vernon and surrounding areas. In doing so, Vernon Fire Rescue Services currently responds to approximately 3,500 calls per year and continues its long history of keeping people safe.
—Lawrie Skolrood is the deputy fire chief for Vernon Fire Rescue Services…