LANARK - Lanark Highlands Township's new fire chief literally got a baptism by fire during his first day on the job.
Just minutes after being sworn in at a special council meeting on Monday, Jan. 7, Rod Black, formerly the deputy fire chief in Carleton Place, was called out to a motor vehicle collision near Middleville.
"I hadn't even met the lads in Middleville when I got the call," said Black during an interview at his new office at the municipal offices in Lanark Village on Jan. 10. "It was pretty exciting. It was a little difficult, (but they are) a good bunch of lads."
Black's first day on the job, already a busy one, took a surreal turn that night when he attended his first district fire chiefs meeting, where he pulled up a chair at the same table as the man whom he had called boss up until recently, Ocean Wave Fire Company Chief Les Reynolds.
"We had a little giggle," said Black, of Reynolds now having to refer to his former number two as 'Chief Black.'
"How are things up in the Highlands, Chief Black?" asked Reynolds.
"It feels good to be top dog," Black said back in his office, as he looked around at half-un-packed bags.
While enjoying his latest promotion, the emotional and physical burdens of the job are ever present in Black's mind.
"You're dealing with devastation all the time on the job," he said. "You have to be compassionate. Firemen are a different breed. They are a hands-on kind of guy. They've probably seen a lot of this before. They build up a wall... some take it home," something he admits is not always healthy in the long term.
One way he and his firefighters handle the pressure after a harrowing call is "talking to the other firemen. We go back to the hall and we talk about it." As the guys talk, he and others in authority look around and listen and see who needs more professional help, like counselling.
One of the challenges he is facing with his new job is bringing the fire department on to a single paging system. Another challenge that the department has admitted to is getting its firefighters properly trained, but he was quick to point out that "half of the training is already done," especially with regards to the water shuttle. "The training issue will be looked after."
With last year's drought necessitating a burn ban, Black stated that maintaining a burn ban might be easier in a place like Carleton Place, which is more urban, than in a place with many lakes and recreational areas like Lanark Highlands.
"Everybody loves sitting around a camp fire," said Black. "You don't want to take that away."
But he calls his "biggest fight" is keeping and retaining committed and qualified volunteer firefighters.
"That's one of our biggest problems," he said, with the average volunteer firefighter taking about seven years to train totally, but with the average volunteer only lasting about five years in the role.
Another aggravation for the department's upper brass is the effect of insurance and potential litigation in using their resources. The firefighting boat in White Lake, for example, had to be removed because of a lack of manpower and because it was not properly sanctioned.
Other resources are "scattered around" the township's eight stations, with the added frustration that, say, a 1,000 litre-per-minute tanker truck might not be able to get down a bush road.
Black has served for 23 years in the area, and was the Carleton Place deputy fire chief for a year-and-a-half. Before that, he served as a fire prevention officer, handling fire prevention and fire inspection, starting in 2001. He has been a volunteer fire fighter since 1989.
Firefighting runs in the Black family, with his father serving as fire chief in Carleton Place, and his grandfather serving as a captain in the old Almonte brigade. His uncle also served at the Carleton Place fire hall for about 10 years, and a cousin died in firefighting action during a fire call in Shawville, Que.
While still getting used to his new surroundings, Black has already taken to the Highlands, as have the citizens taken to him.
"Everybody here in the Highlands has a big heart and they want to help their neighbours," he said. "Carleton Place (by comparison) is a bedroom community. They are moving (there) because it is cheaper and they are close to work in Ottawa. Carleton Place was a good place to work but they are losing that small town feeling."