Fire Chief Ron Morden says new hires have slashed evening response times

October 30, 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Mike Baker

Three months after hiring eight new full-time firefighters, the Orangeville Fire Department is stronger than ever and now meets industry standards for night-time response times, says Fire Chief Ron Morden.

Sitting down with the Citizen earlier this month, Chief Morden spent the better part of an hour describing, at length, all the things the Orangeville Fire Department does in the community, while also offering this reporter a glimpse into the day-to-day life of an Orangeville firefighter.

“It’s the best job in the world,” said Shawn Burns, one of the new full-time hires, who joins the Orangeville department following a seven-year volunteer stint in King Township. “This was my dream to be hired full-time and I really feel like I’ve hit the jackpot here in Orangeville. It’s a phenomenal department with phenomenal people.”

Mr. Burns is now one of 20 full-time firefighters who call the Orangeville department home. Described as a composite fire department by Chief Morden, it also relies on a team of 28 volunteer firefighters to meet the rigorous demands of the community.

The fire department serves all of Orangeville, as well as parts of Mono, Amaranth and East Garafraxa. In total, the department responds to approximately 1,350 calls per year.

“We are a busy department and we’re getting busier every year,” Chief Morden noted. “But, it’s important to note that we are more than simply a firefighting service – we provide fire prevention and public education services, too.”

To assist in that regard, the department also boasts three fire prevention professionals. Their tasks will typically involve carrying out regular public inspections of existing buildings and going over plans for proposed new units in town. From an educational standpoint, Chief Morden noted the department currently has a presence in 98 percent of the schools in its responding area, where staff teaches various courses focused on a variety of age groups.

While the increase in full-time firefighting support has boosted morale at the fire department, the most important improvement the community has seen, Chief Morden says, has been in response times. For years, the department has been able to maintain a response time of less than five minutes when responding to incidents during the day-time shift, which previously spanned from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. In the evenings, when relying solely on volunteer firefighters, those response stretched, sometimes, to as long as 20 minutes per incident.

Chief Morden was proud to announce that response times during the evening had been slashed, on average, by more than ten minutes, bringing the department up to industry standards as laid out by the National Fire Protection Association and the Ontario Fire Marshal’s Office. He also noted that previous response times of between 15 and 17 minutes to rural emergencies had been cut to between 8 and 9 minutes.

“It’s a big difference and I think shows why it was so important that we bring these additional full-timers on board,” Chief Morden said. “When I first started in firefighting you were dealing with heavier designed buildings – heavier construction, heavier timbers. Over the last 20 years or so you see more buildings going up with more of a lightweight frame. While years ago the flame spread wasn’t so fierce, people today have literally seconds to respond and get out of a building safely.”

He added, “The statistics used today show that a fire doubles in size for every minute that goes by. With that in mind, it’s pretty clear to see why it’s so vital that we ensure our firefighters are able to respond to calls as quickly as they possibly can.” 

Of those calls out into the community, approximately 78 percent are in Orangeville. The remaining 22 percent are calls out in the three other Dufferin County communities the department serves, numbers that were reflected in the new Fire Services Agreement Orangeville Council signed off on last month.

Breaking down his department further, Chief Morden explained there are now two shifts on the full-time rota. The daytime shift begins at 7 a.m. and runs 10 hours. The night-time shift, beginning at 5 p.m. runs 14 hours. The department’s 20 full-timers are split in five platoons of five, with each boasting a captain and four other firefighters. Each platoon rotates between working the day shift and the night shift.

While a significant part of their day involves responding to calls, Chief Morden notes firefighters have daily tasks, or chores if you prefer, that they must complete around the hall.

“The full-timers carry out all station maintenance – we don’t have any custodial staff. They look after the building completely, whether it be washing and waxing the trucks, mopping floors, changing light bulbs – whatever needs doing, they do,” Chief Morden said.

Firefighters are also responsible for setting aside at least a couple of hours every shift to train, whether it be physical or mental. “That’s a flexible thing they squeeze in between calls,” Chief Morden said.

And, when it comes to calls, the department does more than simply rescue cats from trees, Chief Morden informs.

“Around 25 percent of our calls are fire-related. I guess the next one we would respond to would be medical calls. We’re there to assist the paramedics in any way that we can. If we are able to get to the scene first, our firefighters will provide oxygen therapy, we have defibrillation capacity – we go through the whole assessment of the patient,” Chief Morden said. “The big one we go out to is motor vehicle collisions. We have Highway 10, County Road 109, Highway 9 and lots of rural roads. There’s lots of traffic on our roads at all times.”

The department also responds to hazardous materials calls, agricultural emergencies, industrial accidents, water and ice water rescue and various other community concerns.

“We could even respond to help a cat get down from a tree,” Chief Morden said with a smile.

A lot has changed for Chief Morden since he first joined the Orangeville Fire Department as deputy fire chief in 2000. Since it had only volunteer firefighters at that time, Ron appreciates everything that has gone into making the department what it is today. That’s not to say that he doesn’t appreciate the volunteer force; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

“I don’t like to distinguish between our full-time and volunteer firefighters – in my eyes, they are all Orangeville firefighters. I have 48 Orangeville firefighters,” Chief Morden said. “The volunteers aren’t here just to help the full-time staff, they are here to do the exact same job. Our volunteer firefighters play a vital role in our department and in our emergency response. They are educated and certified to the exact same level as our full-time staff.”

He added, “I won’t ever see a time in Orangeville where we won’t have or depend upon our volunteer firefighters.”

Matt Klimek has been a volunteer firefighter with the Orangeville Fire Department for more than 15 years. On average throughout the year, he estimates he will respond to 200 or 300 calls. He took the time to explain exactly how the process goes from receiving a call to arriving on site.

“As a volunteer firefighter, we all carry pagers. Whenever your pager goes off, we are expected to respond, no matter the time, no matter what we’re doing. It’s a big commitment to just basically pick up and go whenever something happens, but that’s what we signed up for,” Mr. Klimek said. “We’re expected to get to the hall as quickly as we can. I’m in the west end so it takes me about five minutes to get in. Once there, we take 60 seconds or so to get into our equipment, hop in the truck and as soon as we have four volunteers, we can go.”

Mike Parr is a fairly new volunteer recruit, joining in 2016. He discussed what it takes from a training standpoint to go from regular average joe citizen to a volunteer firefighter.

“It’s a little more than just learning to point a hose, I’ll tell you that for free,” Mr. Parr said. “The first half a year it’s pretty rigorous in terms of hitting the books and having to do presentations to your fellow volunteers. You have to go through a lot of physical testing to show you can keep up with the demands of the job. It’s lots of studying, lots of dedication and it isn’t easy if you’ve got lots going on in your life. You have to dedicate a lot of time to this, probably two or three hours per night.”

Currently, Mr. Parr says he responds to approximately half of the 1,350 calls the department receives per year.

So with such a well-trained team in place, the missing piece of the puzzle, according to Chief Morden, is securing a new, appropriate home for the department. The current fire hall was constructed in 1972 and the service as it stands today has long outgrown the facility. It’s clear even for this reporter to see how tight things are down in the truck bay, and how cramped office space is for training, fire prevention and management upstairs.

“I think this facility has served its purpose, but there is a great need for a new station. This is something we, as a community, need to address sooner rather than later,” Chief Morden said. “Our firefighters work within this building each and every day and there are times when it’s not the safest. Whenever firefighters are putting on their gear, they are literally a foot away from a moving truck. We have to move trucks outside right now to carry out vehicle inventories because there isn’t enough room to open up cabinet doors with them parked inside the facility.”

In its five-year plan, the Town has set aside $8 million in its 2020 capital plan to pay for a new fire hall. For Chief Morden, that cannot come soon enough.

“It is a pretty dire situation, but we understand there’s lots to consider. We would like to remain centrally located within town, so there’s a need to find an appropriate plot of land,” Chief Morden said. “This is something we outlined front and centre in our Fire Master Plan back in 2015. It’s a big, big priority for us.”

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