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First came the fire truck, then came the Avondale fire department

By Craig Westcott/November 11, 2021

It may be one of those rare cases in government where the horse was actually put before the cart when it came to organizing the Avondale Volunteer Fire Department.

The department is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year and former volunteer firefighter and now town councilor Don Lewis well remembers how it call came about. He recounted the story for today’s firefighters and their guests at the annual fireman’s ball, which was held recently.

Lewis said he was home one evening when the mayor at the time, Gerald Kennedy, and councilor Bern Hickey came to visit.

“They said, ‘We have a problem. We have a new fire hall and with a lot of assistance from Norm Doyle (our MHA at the time), we have a new state of the art fire truck coming. Our problem is we have no fire department,’” Lewis recalled. “We chatted for a while, and we came up with a plan. We advertised and got a good response. Some of the people who signed up, it was probably their first-time volunteering for anything in the community and they became some of the best volunteers in Avondale.”

The new fire truck came with a training course provided by Fred Hollett of the provincial Fire Commissioner’s Office. 

“It was a full weekend course,” said Lewis. “All the clothing and personal protective equipment that came with the truck was XX-large and the boots at least size 11. When dressed we looked like a hard group of firemen. One of our small guys, Harold Power, put on the coat and cap and he disappeared. Fred never gave up on us and he got us through the course. Fred later in life became the Fire Commissioner and he was always a great asset to our department.”

Lewis said one of the first things Hollett advised the men to do was to form an official department and enlist the women of the community into a Ladies Auxillary, “because all successful men have a woman behind them.”

Peter Lyons became the fire chief and Wayne Wall and Lewis were named his assistants. 

“The ladies, most our wives, formed a Ladies’ Auxiliary,” said Lewis. “One of our first tasks was to have a logo and emblem designed. We put out a contest to all school students. The winner was Glen Howard and I presented him an award at our first firemen’s ball. That emblem still stands today.”

One of the more ingenious efforts is credited to the late Frank Doyle. “Frank got an old tank from Ultramar over in Holyrood and we put that on a truck that we picked up from the Department of Transportation and we made a water tanker out of it for supplying the pumper,” said Lewis. “It was all volunteer work.”

Lewis said the new department managed to overcome many challenges, thanks in part to a vision to succeed. It became a staple of the community with members doing everything from traffic control at Christmas parades to providing Honour Guards at Remembrance Day and Memorial Day ceremonies. They also help at church functions, softball tournaments and fundraisers, and offer safety tips to students during Fire Prevention week—that on top of fighting fires.

“The main thing was we responded to every fire and emergency in Avondale and all surrounding communities in the area,” said Lewis. “If we heard of a fire and were not contacted, we still went. We have respect from all communities because we are centrally located, with a new modern pumper and we are very organized.”

Over time, as the members aged and personal work commitments increased, some of them had to move on, including Lewis, who served as the department’s fifth fire chief. But the department kept going, recruiting new members and displaying a rate of retention that is the envy of many brigades.

“Today Avondale has a volunteer fire department second to none in this province,” said Lewis. “They have a member, Neil Baker, who is certified to do training. In his free time, he does in house training. Besides fire response, Avondale fire department responds to all accidents on the TCH from Salmonier Line to Roches Line. You have to remember these people are volunteers, no one is paid for their time. The department is funded by the Town, but they almost do enough fund raising to be self-sufficient. That in itself is a major accomplishment.”

When Lewis was elected to Avondale council in September and asked to serve as the liaison with the fire department, it felt like he had come full circle.

“I can say the Avondale Fire Department was successful because it never had a negative remark from any resident of the town,” Lewis allowed. “It has always provided excellent fire and emergency services but also provided a lot of social activities in our town. Combining this is the road to success. The Fire Chief today, Chad Costello, is young and has a lot of young members with vigor to succeed, but he also has some older guys with 35 years of experience and a town to make sure they keep up the vision of being the best Volunteer Fire Department in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Fire Chief Costello said it was an honour at the ball to present pins for 35 years of service to seven members of his crew, including former chief Gordon Hawco, Joseph Cantwell, Andrew Mason, Owen Mahoney, Harold Power, Jim O’Leary and Wayne Wall, as well as 30-year pins to Howard Costello and Gordon Cole, and a pin for 25 years of service to Robert Cole. Chief Costello and fellow firefighter Clyde O’Leary received pins for 15 years of service, while Shane Costello was presented with a 10-year pin, and Linus Mason Jr., and David Long received 5-year pins.

The department has a complement of 34 firefighters.

Like some of the other members, Chief Costello joined the department as a junior firefighter when he was just 16 and spent two years training to become a full member.

“We’ve been pretty strong with numbers, I must say,” Costello said. “The fire department has always been strong in the Town of Avondale, it always drew a good crowd… And we’re getting a lot of younger faces over the last number of years who have been transitioning into the fire department, which is a great thing to see for our town.”

In joining the department, Costello followed the example of his father Howard Costello, mentioned above for earning a 30-year pin. 

Chief Costello took over the top position from long time chief Gordon Hawco three years ago. Hawco just retired from the department.

At the ball, the department formally recognized the progress of Noah Slaney and Liam O’Leary from Junior Firefighters to full members. Neil Baker was named the Firefighter of the Year.

As for the longevity of many of the members, Costello, like Lewis, acknowledged the camaraderie and social aspect of being a member.

“It’s one of those things that just kind of grabs hold of you,” said the Chief. “And you can’t let go. I heard Gordon Hawco say at our last meeting that it was a hard thing to retire from after 35 years. He thought more of retiring from the fire hall than he did from his job, and I’m finding it the same way.”

The crew meets every Thursday for training. On the first Thursday of each month they discuss all the business of the department, including training, the financials and everything else.

On the financial side, it does take a lot more money these days to keep a fire department going, Costello admitted. “It’s a lot different from 35 years ago, that’s for sure,” he said. “The price of everything has pretty well doubled and some of the towns are smaller (population-wise) now. A self-contained breathing apparatus can cost up to $10,000 now, and a suit of bunker gear can cost up to $3,500. So, it’s all about the government funding. And we do a lot of fundraising through the ball tournament and moose burger sales, a toll bridge – the CBC firefighters’ bingo is a major one for us… It’s almost like a small business nowadays to be running the fire department.”

This past weekend, the department hosted a three-day vehicle extrication course for firefighters throughout the Avalon.

Costello, who was away working at Voisey’s Bay, had full confidence in his department’s ability to carry it out. Meanwhile, the department is still taking on members. Costello said it has received interest from a prospective female firefighter, which would be a welcome addition. “We have had female firefighters in the past,” he noted. “We always welcome women or anyone who might be interested in joining the department.”

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