Fire department has volunteers from all over the world

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Canadian society is changing, so perhaps it’s no surprise that volunteer fire departments are as well. Hall #1 (Slave Lake) of the Lesser Slave Regional Fire Services is a good example. Once upon a time it would have been entirely male, with volunteers who were also immigrants not really part of the picture.

Not so any more!

Take José Diaz, for example. From Columbia, South America, he’s recently signed up as a volunteer, been through a fairly intensive training program and has started responding to calls as part of the team. And he’s loving it.

“It’s very nice,” he says. “It’s like a family.”

Diaz is a 10-year resident of Slave Lake, married and with two school-aged children. He manages Mr. Mike’s restaurant, and although he’s busy with work and family, he says – at 49 years old and with a growing sense of being part of the community and wanting to give something back – he decided to take the plunge.

“I’d been thinking about it for many years,” he says. What finally pushed him to apply was the encouragement of another volunteer he knows, Sylvain Normand. That was five months ago, and he felt very welcome right from the start.

Another newcomer to the force who comes from even further, geographically and culturally, is Raxen Singh. He’s from India and says being a firefighter, and working in law enforcement, has been a lifelong dream. He started as a volunteer firefighter at about the same time as Diaz, in October of last year.

“I love it,” he says. “It’s a very good working team.”

One thing Singh is pleased about, besides the work and belonging to the group is that “I believe I’m the first Sikh” to have served as a volunteer firefighter in Slave Lake.

Then there’s Bianca Martens. She’s from Germany, which she says is quite different culturally. But one thing it has in common is plenty of opportunities for volunteering to help others. Having moved to Canada, Martens says she was looking for ways to continue doing that. Volunteer firefighting turned out to be that thing.

“I always wanted to be more involved in the community,” she says.

It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for her. The training process – especially at first – was a stiff challenge, partly due to her limited facility in English. But she got through it and now says she enjoys very much helping people as part of a team that also “became my family.”

A separate, but related volunteer opportunity in the region is with the search & rescue group. One of its members is Lili Normand, a native of Mexico. She says she’s learned lots of new skills and appreciates the opportunity. The main thing about search and rescue though, she says, is “beyond nationality.” It’s “what a human being is willing to do in order to help another human being who is lost or in danger.”

Fire Chief Alex Pavcek says the character of the volunteer force has been changing in this way for quite some time. He counts 15 nationalities. It brings a new set of challenges, particularly in communicating with people for whom English is not their first language. But it’s a good group, he says, and they are top-notch volunteers, in it for the right reasons.

“It’s showing their desire to help the community they live in,” he says. He calls it a “melting pot of people.”

Freddie Somera is one of the ground-breakers when it comes to immigrants on the force – at least ones whose first language isn’t English. He’s Filipino and this year marks his 13th as a volunteer firefighter.

“It was my childhood dream,” to be a firefighter, Somera says. So back in 2013 when his employer (West Fraser at the time) called for volunteers to help man the new Mitsue Fire Hall, “I jumped in right away.”

Somera says it was a good experience from the start, thanks to the great support he had from then Chief Jamie Coutts. And people he works with, he says “are so professional and respectful.”

There are three Filipinos on the force now, and Somera’s ground-breaking role and encouragement has a lot to do with it.
“I love it!” he says.

Freddie Somera – first Filipino on the force
José Diaz – he’s from Colombia
The Hall #1 crew of the LSL Regional Fire Service.
Photo courtesy of the LSL Regional Fire Service.

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