H&R Machine: Local company making a difference for firefighters across North America

Whether it’s an out-of-control blaze or a seemingly routine medical call, for firefighters timing is everything.

Minutes, even seconds, can mean the difference between life and death. And proper training is vital to ensure firefighters are at their best when emergencies strike.

“It has to be second nature,” says Jamie Hiller, whose Fergus company H&R Machine produces specialized forcible entry training equipment.

Also a volunteer firefighter with the Centre Wellington department, Hiller says it’s his personal experience as a firefighter that sets his company’s fire service products apart from those of his competitors.

“When I build something I have to think like a firefighter,” he said. “I also have a reputation to keep – as a business and as a firefighter … There’s a trust that goes on in fire services.”

That trust, in addition to offering top-quality products, has helped H&R Machine develop a client base that includes fire departments throughout Ontario and across North America, including in western Canada, Miami, New York state, Virginia, Chicago  and North Carolina.

H&R Machine, which was started in 1982 by Hiller’s father, Fred, is a “very diversified company,” Hiller said, specializing in equipment for heavy and light industries and agriculture, in addition to fire services.

“You name it, we do it,” he said. But since delving into fire services equipment about three years ago, that part of the business has taken off.

“Our American market has really exploded … free trade is good,” he said with a smile. H&R Machine does not advertise its fire services equipment – Hiller does attend trade shows – and almost all of its clientele is acquired through word of mouth.

The Fergus company offers  eight training “props” used to train firefighters in forced entry, including one to work on prying out hinges, one for breaking open locks, another for cutting various types of metals at different heights and angles and, the most popular item, a dual-sided, dead bolt steel door device that firefighters can literally smash open thousands of times.

Hiller works closely with Brotherhood Instructors, which offers basic, hands-on training to fire departments across the continent, to help decrease the time required for firefighters to enter buildings.

Andrew Brassard, a Milton firefighter and co-owner of Brotherhood Instructors, designed the props now built by H&R Machine and he feels they are an invaluable tool for firefighters. He noted forcible entry training used to – and for many firefighters, still does – consist only of watching a video or PowerPoint presentation.

“Good luck at 3am at your first fire,” Brassard said, when there is no hands-on practice.

“It’s the combination of the props and training that does it … it’s a great combination. [The props are] a great product for fire services.”

Randy Fleming, training officer with Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services, agrees.

“The ability to get a large number of personnel through each evolution in a timely fashion aids greatly to delivery of course content,” Fleming said.

Like Brassard, Hiller also stressed the difference between in-class and hands-on training is like night and day.

“What do you think firefighters would rather do? What do you think is more effective?” Hiller asks rhetorically minutes after demonstrating how the training equipment works.

H&R Machines’ five full-time employees have over 100 combined years of machine shop experience and work around the clock out of the company’s 6,000 square foot shop on Gregson Court.

In addition to about two dozen training door units per year, they also manufacture about a dozen drying units for bunker gear and water rescue equipment – all of it made of solid steel.

“We try to do everything as local as we can,” Hiller said, adding H&R Machine uses companies in and around Centre Wellington for materials and delivery.

The idea for the equipment dryers was developed to address several operational and safety issues with the usual  way of doing things.

Hiller explained firefighters regularly just hang their gear in fire halls after a call or at the end of their shift. Not only was that messy and disorganized, especially if outsiders are touring the facility, but it also took a lot of time and meant if not properly dried, the suits still contained contaminants from the fire.

“Why are we exposing a patient to that?” he asked himself. “It’s like a doctor not washing his hands.”

Regular clothes dryers are not an option, he said, because of the temperature involved and the repeated crinkling of material, which can weaken the insulating function of the bunker gear. And a lot of the specialized dryers on the market are stationary, hard-wired in place and/or not suited for the fire hall.

But H&R Machine’s 110 volt, 15 amp “Phoenix Dryers” are mobile and can be plugged into any electrical outlet. Plus, the structural steel tube design makes them very safe for fire halls, which also welcome many young visitors throughout the year.

“We build them so durable and the design is meant not to tip over,” Hiller said. “Fire departments really like them.”

Kevin Roach, deputy fire chief with the Welland department, recently told Hiller, “Personal protective equipment is now being returned to service, completely dried, in less than half the time it took previously.”

In addition to his experience and quality craftsmanship, Hiller feels his price point and delivery also give him a leg up on the competition. His equipment can often cost half the price of similar equipment sold by some American companies, and he can have items delivered as far away as the southern U.S. within two weeks of receiving an order.

“The delivery of the product is almost as important as the product that I’ve built,” he said.

And while many fire departments still view equipment like the dryers as somewhat of a luxury, that’s a mentality Hiller is hoping to change.

“It becomes a necessity” if firefighters are unavailable because their equipment is out of service, he said.

While he does run a successful business – “the recession really hasn’t affected us,” he said –  Hiller’s main focus is always safety and helping firefighters do their jobs.

“Train to live and live to train,” he said, evoking a common motto among firefighters. “The goal is for everyone to go home safely at the end of the day.”

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The Centre Wellington Fire Department will be hosting basic and advanced Brotherhood Instructors’ forcible entry courses on Nov. 13 and 14, at station 40 on Queen Street in Fegus.

The course is open to all municipal firefighters, although space is limited.

“We have a wide variety of experience,” Brassard said of the instructors, who come from across North America. “These are some of the best guys in the world.”

For information contact Andrew Brassard at forcethedoor@hotmail.com or 905-699-9966.