All the right ‘stuff’
The Sault Star

PRINCE TOWNSHIP — Steve Hemsworth, Prince Township’s new fire chief, began volunteering with fire department only a year ago, but he comes with a stellar background in emergency services.

A police officer for over 30 years, Hemsworth retired from the OPP in 2017 with the rank of sergeant, after serving in several regions of the province, including the OPP’s Superior East Division in Wawa.

The Woodstock, Ont., native also volunteered for 10 years with the South-West Oxford Fire Service in Beachville, Ont., which serves the Highway 401 corridor between Woodstock and Ingersoll.

During those years, he not only fought fires, but also but assisted in vehicle extrications and in containing hazardous material spills.

“I have supervisions experience, I’m retired, and I have the time to put into this job, and hopefully the energy,” Hemsworth told The Sault Star, when asked why he applied to head a volunteer fire department that has struggled in recent years to maintain a full roster.

He also has a budget of $125,000, more than double the figure available to his predecessor, Ed Haley.

Part of the allotment will cover his salary and volunteers’ honorariums, but he says the greater part will go toward “health and safety stuff,” such as new bunker gear that meets the standards set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

“When it’s a lifesaving piece of equipment, you want to have the best stuff available should you have to go in the worst places,” Hemsworth said.

“Unfortunately, we have some firefighters that don’t have bunker gear, because the stuff’s expired.”

A single suit costs $2,000, excluding gloves and helmets, so Hemsworth plans to spread the purchases over two years.

In the next two years, he also wants to replace the department’s tanker truck. “It’s served us very well, but it’s hard to get parts for … (and) keeping a vehicle out of action for a couple of months isn’t an option,” he said.

Anther project will be to fine-tune the department’s communications system to eliminate dead zones within the township.

But Hemsworth’s biggest task will be to prepare Prince Township’s firefighters for the legislative changes he says will affect volunteer fire departments province-wide.

Early in 2018, the Ontario Liberal government introduced legislation making it mandatory for all firefighters, both full-time and volunteer, to earn NFPA certification levels one and two by July this year.

Last November, the Progressive Conservative government withdrew the legislation, but Hemsworth predicted that, sooner or later, it will be back.

Some of Prince’s volunteer firefighters already have their certification, Hemsworth said, and it’s a goal he’d like everyone in the department to achieve.

He explained that the certification training will be a multi-year project. For starters, the training costs will be higher than in previous years, and firefighters must commit to hours of studying course material online.

They also must travel to southern Ontario to be certified by the Ontario Fire College.

“The township will pay for the training. The firefighter has to take time off work and get down to Southern Ontario,” Hemsworth said.  “We have dedicated volunteers, but it’s a big ask.”

The advantage, he explained, is that firefighters who complete NFPA levels one and two are trained to the highest available standards, and are well prepared to adapt when the standards evolve.

“Past training in Prince was good, but it may not have been NFPA standards,” he said.

Asked what prior qualifications Prince residents need to begin volunteering with the fire department, Hemsworth replied that they must have a valid driver’s licence and be legally able to work in Ontario.

They’ll also need a certificate in first aid, CPR, and AED (operating a defibrillator).

Additionally, the department will also accept Sault Ste. Marie residents who have firefighting or paramedic experience or a background in medicine.

Last year, Prince firefighters responded to 62 calls, most of which were for medical first response, Hemsworth said.

 The department currently has 21 firefighters, three of whom are new recruits, and two additional members who respond only to medical calls.

Hemsworth noted that residents who want up-to-date news of the fire department’s activities may view its new Facebook and Instagram pages (Prince Township Fire Service).

“That’s one way for us to communicate with the residents,” he said. “We got a big budget increase this year, and I want to be accountable to the people of the township. I want them to know what training we’re going through, what equipment we’re buying, and why we’re buying it.”

He stressed that while the $125,000 price tag might seem high, it’s half the annual cost of entering a contract with Sault Ste. Marie Fire Services for fire protection.

Hemsworth also credits Haley with approaching council and speaking candidly of the decisions council would have to make to keep the department viable well into the future.

“Even though he was outgoing, he wanted to make sure that the department could move forward and that council had all the information they needed to make an informed decision on …which choice they wanted,” Hemsworth said.

As Hemsworth sees it, council had three choices: to defund the fire department and practise fire prevention only, to have Sault Fire provide fire protection, or to boost the volunteer fire department’s funding to the point where it could excel.

“They chose the third option,” said Hemsworth.  “I’m happy about that, and I’m sure that the residents are happy about that too.”

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