By Mark Squibb
October 6, 2023 Edition
John Heffernan, 53, has seen a lot in the thirty-plus years he has spent serving the community of Conception Bay South with the Fire Department.
Heffernan, who hails from Chamberlains, joined the department as a volunteer firefighter in February 1990, while also serving in the military, a role he continues to maintain to this day. He said the careers complement each other, and that many members of the military also serve in firefighter positions, either paid or volunteer.
“Even at a very young age, I was always involved in community service organizations,” said Heffernan. “I grew up in Conception Bay South, and so it was certainly an opportunity to give back to the community. And not to sound cliché, but it was an opportunity to help your fellow residents and contribute.”
Just a few months after Heffernan began volunteering, the department hired six paid firefighters in the summer of 1990, a move that began the transition from a volunteer fire department to the composite model consisting of both paid and volunteer members that exists today.
Heffernan said the department boasts a robust team of volunteers, who are typically called when extra hands are needed to deal with structural fires and motor vehicle accidents.
The department just finished a recruitment process that has resulted in nine new volunteer firefighters.
Heffernan himself was hired as a paid member in August 2001, and was named Chief in October of 2015. He said one of the biggest changes he has seen since joining the department almost 34 years ago is the change in home construction material, and the dangers new materials pose to firefighters both during — and after — a fire call.
“In a lot of new homes there are a lot of synthetics, and man-made materials with glues and polymers, and there are some inherent concerns with those materials,” Heffernan explained. “One is the sheer fire load that we see in a home made with combustible materials compared to the homes we would have grown up with. Also, floor trusses, floor systems, those sorts of things, tend to fail very quickly in a structural type of fire. So, we know that in new-home constructions, a home can flash within three or four minutes — essentially, when we are just arriving on scene. With legacy homes, the older, more traditional structures, there’s concerns with those as well but not the same concerns. But to counter that, we have some pretty robust technology out there as well, like foams that supress fires. And the vehicles we drive now compared to the vehicles I would have learned to drive 30-something years ago are quite different.”
Heffernan noted synthetic materials contain many cancer-causing agents that can be released while the material is burning, and that exposure to them can be dangerous for firefighters.
“Any time anyone has been exposed to something we keep good records,” said the chief. “The turnout gear we wear now is pretty much the gold standard to protect firefighters from cancer. In support of that, we have a very robust decontamination process that we use on any and all fire calls, so whatever you encounter on a fire scene stays on a fire scene, you don’t bring it back here and you don’t bring it home.”
He added that firefighters may be exposed to harmful chemicals and not suffer any effects until late in life.
“That’s why we need to put as many checks and balances and protections in as we can,” said Heffernan. “It’s something we take very seriously. I remember when I joined the fire service, a dirty helmet was deemed a badge of honour, but now it’s different.”
To that end, the department contracts a third-party company to complete annual medical exams for all firefighters, both paid and volunteer.
“Cancer prevention is a priority for the Conception Bay South Fire Department as we lead the province with initiatives to reduce exposure of our firefighters to carcinogens and the harmful products of combustion,” said Heffernan, who sits on the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) Firefighter Cancer Committee.
Additionally, mental health as well as the physical health of firefighters has become a priority in recent years.
“With current call volumes and the scope of our emergency responses, we need to have access to as many programs and resources as possible to best protect our firefighters,” said Heffernan, who is the Co-Chair of the CAFC Firefighter Mental Health Committee.
The fire department, which along with the Town of Conception Bay South, is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year, is also taking steps to become more environmentally friendly. Heffernan said that, for example, the department may choose to replace a gas-powered chainsaw with an electric chainsaw.
And while many things may have changed over the years, one thing certainly has not — the willingness of firefighters, both paid and volunteer, to jump into action at a moment’s notice whenever duty demands it.
But, perhaps surprisingly, many of the emergencies firefighters are called to attend are not actual fires.
“Structural fires account for maybe the least number of calls that we respond to, it’s probably somewhere in the four percent range,” said Heffernan. “The largest majority of calls we respond to are medical calls in support of ambulance services.”
Heffernan, meanwhile, has no intention yet of slowing down, and reckons he has more years of service in him yet.