It is rare for people to spend 50 years at a single job – let alone a volunteer position – but Ivan Fair is the exception to the rule as he celebrates 50 years of service as a volunteer firefighter.
Fair joined the Arthur Fire Department on Feb. 6, 1960.
“I think the biggest reason I joined was that they were really, really short of help.”
He said a number of men joined that night, including Roy Dixon, Lloyd Ross, Lloyd Mulholland and himself.
When asked about what it was like at that time, he said “All we had was the old ’47 [truck] up where the OPP?station is now.”
The fire hall at the time later became the Arthur village municipal office, and currently serves as home to the OPP community office and the Arthur community archives.
But Fair said when the building served as the fire hall, “It was so packed in there, you couldn’t get around the front bumper or the back end. We had to open the front door to get around the truck. That’s how close it was in the single bay.”
As for the gear, “Our bunker clothes were all done up with our hip boots in the middle, the coat wrapped around it, the old toque hung over the back, and they were hung on the side of the fire truck with leather straps.”
When asked about helmets, he responded “Oh no. There were no helmets, just leather toques.”
He chuckled as he remembered how the toques were famous, “for running the water down the back of your neck.”
Though the responses to calls are far different now, Fair said “at that time, they were all fire calls, and you might have one every two weeks … maybe.”
Still, he noted, there were also a few technical difficulties with which to deal.
“Quite often in the old truck, the battery would be dead and we would have to shove it down the main street by hand to push start it. It was a good job it was downhill,” he laughed.
“As far as the trucks go, I drove the tank truck quite a bit; the way they’ve changed is unreal.
“I think the old pumper was rated at 650 gallons per minute. The new pumper is rated at 1,250, but the minimum amount is 1,000 gallons per minute. That’s pretty near double what the old one was. It’s a lot of water. You want a couple of good boys on the other end of the hose.”
He shared a memory of just exactly what that water pressure can do.
During a fire at the old Co-op mill in Arthur, “I remember Clifford Colwill and I on the extension ladder putting water in the gable end. Right across the road was a hydrant, but it was froze up, so they had to go way up the street … and they turned the water on. But there was no radio … no nothing. We didn’t know the water was coming.”
The pressure pushed them back three to four feet, still on the ladder, before swinging back to the building, he said.
Over the years, Fair operated the pump as well as the tanker.
“It wasn’t too long after we started getting other equipment that Bill Shaw and I were the only two who could run the pumper.”
He suspected the old ’47 pumper would still pump water if needed, although he hopes it would never come to that.
More likely, the Arthur department would call in mutual aid from other local departments first.
Dealing with emergencies on a frequent basis, there are a number of things that have happened over the years, but for some, Fair considered it best that he not discuss them.
However, Fair did say one incident that really shook him up a number of years back “was a young lad who burned to death in a barn in Arthur Township in the hay mow. They’d been playing with matches and one thing led to another … and away it went.
“Larry Cudney and I found him.”
Of course, Fair said there were better memories over the years and, “We did have fun as well.”
Unusual calls back then included a response to the 1996 tornado that crossed the townships of Peel, Arthur and West Luther, and an earlier tornado in 1985, which crossed through West Luther before hitting Grand Valley.
He noted the tornado in 1985 started on the 14th Concession and went right back the Second of West Luther, going back and fourth across the road.
“It was quite a night,” Fair said of that 1996 tornado.
“It stopped for nothing.”
Some of the farm implements were flipped over “just like toys.”
He noted rare times where the fire crew would end up in the wrong township as a result of dispatch error on the other end, “But I don’t know if you’d call that funny or not.”
Covering various townships of the day, there were a number of duplicate or similar Concession and Sideroad names … or identical property descriptions within the neighbouring municipalities.
Even now, some of that confusion still exists in the amalgamated municipalities.
The Arthur department covers a wide area and people calling in could say Third Line when they meant Third Concession – each of which is in a different location, he explained.
When asked if the rural addressing has been sorted out, Fair said “No, it has not. It’s not too long ago we had a number on the Second of West Luther township, near County Road 14, and a property at the other end with the same number.”
And over the years, the changes to what the fire department responds to meant getting training on new equipment.
“There’s been quite a few car accidents over the years,” he said. He cited an accident on County Road 109 where a man pulled out to pass a transport truck.
“He went into the ditch and hit the culvert. We’d have had him out of there if it hadn’t been for the seatbelt. We had him by the back of the neck, but the fire drove us out.”
At that time in the department’s history, it did not have equipment to cut seatbelts – it now does.
“There’s no end to it,” said Fair when asked about the need for updating fire fighting equipment.
He has also been called into situations requiring the use of an air ambulance. He noted that at one accident near Kenilworth, the air ambulance landed right on Highway 6, and another time, near Alma, when a guy ended up in a corn harvester.
“They landed the air ambulance right in the cornfield,” Fair said.
But having that service makes a difference. He said the air ambulance is a benefit, noting the 20-minute travel time from Toronto.
But the use of air ambulances was only one of many changes he’s seen. Compared to when he started, the equipment is radically different.
“When I started in 1960, there was only the one pumper. Now we have two pumpers, a rescue van, and a tanker truck. We train 50 Wednesday nights a year. We take Christmas and New Year’s off,” he laughed.
Communications with the fire crew has changed significantly over the years as well.
When he started, the only notification to firefighters was the sounding of the siren on the old fire hall. That siren is still sounded once per year – on Remembrance Day.
He said the original siren sounded for two minutes to call in the firefighters.
“I’ll tell you at 3 o’clock in the morning, to get your clothes on and into the hall in two minutes … you’re not losing any time.”
While he doesn’t sleep in his clothes, “I do have them handy,” he chuckled.
He added his wife, Dorothy, has joked that “Someday I’ll lose my pants on the way to the hall.”
Although there were fire phones for the officers, for most of the firefighters, it was a switch from the fire siren, to a paging system out of Guelph.
“It was a big change. But it still took the same time to get to the hall. The types of calls have changed radically over the years as well. They’ve changed and there’s more of them.”
He attributed the number of calls increasing over the years in part due to the variety of calls the department now faces.
The Arthur department responds to be between 175 to 200 calls per year, although chief Jim Morrison later noted calls have decreased a bit over the past few years.
Morrison said calls peaked around 200 but decreased about 25 per year over the last few years.
As for the support of his family, Fair said, “Oh you’re right on that.” He did not believe he could have done the job without the support of Dorothy. “No way,” he chuckled. “I think I’d have been out of here about 15 years ago. She’s been a pillar.”
As for the biggest improvement, Fair said one of them is the pumping facilities. “There’s been a lot of good management along the way somewhere,” he said.
Now, after 50 years, he’s only scaling back his involvement.
“I’m just semi-retiring,” he said, adding he’s still going to be helping out at the fire hall, just not be on the active roster.
“Our daytime help can sometimes be near nil,” Fair explained. “If I’m around town, I’ll be here in the daytime. But I’m packing it in for the night trips.”
He agreed that after all these years, firefighting is basically in his blood.
When asked if he could imagine his life without being involved in the fire department, Fair said, “This is why I don’t want to drop it all at once.”
He explained it is like when he “gently” got off driving transports. “The last year I drove for Inter-County Transport, I drove 80,000 miles. I’d turned 50 and I thought, ‘Ivan maybe you better slow down a bit here.’
“We’ve accomplished a lot over the years. I have truly enjoyed giving my time to our town and surrounding townships.”
Fair also served as Arthur’s fire prevention officer and now works at the dispatch desk in the Arthur Fire Hall.
“I have enjoyed working with the fire chiefs, firemen, and attending the mutual aid meetings and fire conventions.
Fair served under Fire Chiefs Bill Moos, then Howard White, Don Cudney, Mike Curtis, Brent Barnes and now Morrison.
“He’s passed on now, but Mike Curtis was one of the best chiefs I ever worked with,” he said. As for others, “They’ve been super, just super. We’ve had our ups and downs, but we could always iron them out.”
And, he noted, “We’ve had very, very few injuries over the years. We’ve been very fortunate, considering what we’ve run up against from time to time. As far as I’m concerned, these accidents out on the highway are just like fires … There’s no two of them the same. You have to assess each one individually.”
He said there are also more accidents involving chemicals “which you really have to watch out for.”
Fair will be officially recognized next month by the Ontario Fire Fighters Association. A celebration for Ivan Fair will be held on Feb. 2 at the Arthur arena community hall from 6pm to 10pm with presentations at 8pm.