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DFD 50: Delta Fire Department celebrates 50 years
Over a hundred years ago, Ladner was just a small fishing village settled on the banks of the Fraser River. The river not only provided the town with rich waters for fishing, but fertile soil for farming as well. By the turn of the century, Ladner had expanded to a thriving agricultural town with a small wharf for farmers ship their goods to Victoria and Vancouver. The waterfront became a commercial hub and the population quickly grew to over 800 people.
As the population grew, so did the risk of fires. The farmers and fishermen fought fires by bucket brigade, using water gathered from the nearby wells and drainage ditches. The brigades weren’t fast enough and as a result, many homes and barns burned down before the water was even collected.
The first water hydrants in the area were employed by the Ladner municipality in 1911. Local residents concerned for the town’s safety contributed their own money to purchase a fire hose and several 40 gallon chemical extinguishers. However, it wasn’t until four years later that the first Fire Brigade was assembled by brave volunteers from the local community.
The first volunteer firefighters met in a municipal barn at the north end of Elliot Street. They used a crude alarm system set up by the B.C. Telephone Company, with a large fire bell placed on top of the United Church so the alarm could be heard all the way across town.
Although the men in the brigade were willing and able, they still didn’t have the manpower or resources to keep up with the ever-growing population. It wasn’t until 1929, when a fire along the riverfront burned down half of Ladner’s Chinatown, that the municipality decided it needed an official fire department to combat the increasing fire risks. The local government passed the Delta Fire Bylaw and the fledgling fire department, led by Cecil Lambert and Chief of Police S.C. Fenton, was born.
The fire department received its first major upgrades during the First World War, when the Canadian Air Raid Patrol took control of the fire hall, bringing in modern equipment and communication technology.
After the war ended, the municipality was able to purchase the leftover equipment in addition to a Ford Chassis which was converted into the town’s first firetruck.
By 1948, Beach Grove, then populated by several small residential areas and a few gravel roads, was given a grant to build a small fire hall and purchase their own firetruck. Since most of employment was only available outside the town, there were no men around to occupy the fire hall during the daytime. Thankfully, six Beach Grove women selflessly volunteered to cover the day shifts of the firemen while they went off at work every day.
Shortly after, North Delta had its own fire hall built by community volunteers on 120 Street, with local resident Joe Love purchasing a used firetruck from Vancouver with money from his own pocket.
Over the next few decades, the completion of the George Massey Tunnel and the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal brought in massive population and economic growth to the Lower Mainland.
“After the tunnel was built,” says former Fire Chief Walter Husband. “Everything exploded.”
Most of the gravel roads were paved over and a shopping centre popped up in Tsawwassen. The economic boom allowed the fire department to buy a chicken barn on the Butler Property for the fourth fire hall.
The East Delta hall was the first to be built by professional builders instead of volunteers. Gordon Huff was chief there from 1960 to 1988, the longest serving volunteer fire chief in Delta.
Eventually, the municipality was able to afford to hire several full-time career firemen in 1963, when the modern fire department was founded. The first four paid staff members of the fire department included Husband and his fellow firemen Kenneth Campbell, L.A. Davidson, and John Tapio, with Cliff Cory serving as the fire coordinator.
The career firefighters worked alongside the volunteers, although there was some confusion over who was officially in charge.
John Tapio, who later became fire chief, noted that all the paid firefighters were over 30 years old, but still had to take orders from the younger volunteers while on the job. The confusion was finally ended when Cory was promoted to be the first paid fire chief over all the fire halls in Delta.
The career firefighters had no official working agreement, however. Wanting to become unionized, the four firefighters joined the Richmond Local 1286 in 1964, not having the minimum seven members to form their own union.
“It was a great thing to join with [Richmond], but we had to build ourselves up,” says Tapio. Four years later, the Delta fire department had enough employees to form the Local 1763.
By 1973, the population in Delta had grown so much that the fire halls were needed to be kept open 24 hours a day. However, the firefighters were not given a two-platoon system to keep up with the demands of the full-day schedule and a year later the fire department sued the municipality.
Although they were successful, the Delta department joined Richmond, Coquitlam, and North Vancouver for a two-day strike one year later. The strike led to the creation of the Provincial Services Act, which made it so fire departments and other essential services in B.C. had to keep running basic duties while in labour dispute.
“There’s been a lot of changes over the years, thousands of them,” says Tapio. One of the biggest changes he remembers was the completion of the Alex Fraser Bridge in 1986, giving the fire department easy access to Annacis Island. Since Annacis was virtually unreachable from Delta, firefighting duties on the island had to be contracted out to the City of New Westminster for around $1 million a year.
“The bridge made it much simpler to get over there,” says Tapio, noting how much money was saved after it was finished.
And the changes kept on coming. “In my career, our equipment has evolved dramatically,” says Delta Firefighters Association President Brad Wilson. Firefighters in Delta now carry self-contained breathing apparatuses and drive trucks equipped with state-of-the-art communications systems. Delta firefighters can also access key information on persons and locations while already en route to emergencies using Project Fires.
Since the fire department is called in for hazardous material emergencies on an almost regular basis, firefighters must carry special hazmat equipment, which Wilson notes is “second to none.”
With the designated hazmat hall built in Tilbury and plans for another hall near the Boundary Bay airport and 80 street overpass, Delta Fire and Emergency Services is still expanding to keep fighting fires in North Delta, Ladner, and Tsawwassen.
Only a few years ago, Delta opened up a centralized office for training in special scenarios in the old fire hall in east Delta. Fire Hall No. 4 was the last fully volunteer-run fire hall in Delta and closed down in 2010 due to a lack of available firefighters. Wilson welcomes the new training centre, seeing it as necessary “to keep up with all the diverse training the is required for our members to hone their skills in preparation for the next call.”
Even though the closing of this hall marked the end of the volunteer firefighters in Delta, the fire department, just like Delta itself, didn’t show any signs of slowing down.
On June 14, the Delta Fire and Emergency Services celebrated their 50th anniversary with a event at the Kirkland House. The event honoured fire department staff past and present who have provided firefighting, safety, and medical service to residents of the Lower Mainland. Present at the anniversary celebration were some of the Delta Fire Departments most senior members, including Tapio and Husband. Mayor Lois Jackson, MLA Vicki Huntington, and Councillor Scott Hamilton were also in attendance.
The Delta fire department has been fueled by some of the most dedicated men and women in the area, and every firefighter in Delta has at least one favourite memory of working in Delta.
For Wilson, it was delivering a baby girl while on duty in 2001. For Chief Dan Copeland, it’s impossible to decide.
“What can I say? This is the best career in the world. You know the quote about when you find a job you love, you never have to work another day in your life. It’s cliche but it’s so true in this case. I take great pride in serving others and that’s what we as firefighters do best.”