Firefighting becomes a family affair for Blyth's McDonald family
BY DENNY SCOTT
On June 23, members of the Blyth division of the Fire Department of North Huron were recognized for either their new dedication to the cause and for their years of service, and the McDonald family of Blyth had different members receive recognition for both.
The Fire Department of North Huron recognized Captain Mike McDonald for 25 years of service with the department and welcomed his daughter Jenna as a new recruit, following in her father’s footsteps. Recently, the two spoke with The Citizen about what it takes to serve on the department for 25 years or what it takes to join the department as a new recruit, and the answer for both was primarily the same: serving the community.
Mike joined the department in 1996, having been invited to join by a truck driver at the Howson and Howson Mills, where McDonald worked until recently.
“I decided to give it a shot and was hooked,” he said. “I enjoy helping people, and helping my community and this is a great way to do it.”
Even when dealing with some of the tougher calls, including people losing their lives or their livelihood, Mike said that being able to help in any way is important and something he is happy to continue doing.
For Jenna, the drive is the same, but the inspiration to join the department started when she was a little girl watching her father run down the street to the Blyth Fire Department hall at the corner of Dinsley and Mill Street.
“It used to be the siren would go off and I’d watch Dad run down the road,” she said, adding she would have to be reminded not to go further than the sidewalk. “I wanted to help and, after the calls, I would go to the fire hall. I really loved being around the firefighters and being a part of that family.
“When I was old enough, it made sense to join and commit to it because I wanted to help my own community,” she said.
Since joining, both Mike and Jenna have gained a new respect for their community as well, learning just how supportive it is of the fire department.
“The community support is great,” Jenna said. “They come out and offer us coffee, donuts, water, everything, and it’s great to know that, while we love helping the community, it has our backs as well.”
Mike said he was happy to see Jenna join because he trusts the current leadership of the fire department. If he didn’t, he said, there would have been a different discussion around her joining. That trust has, for the most part, been built since he started, he said.
In 26 years, he has outlasted two fire halls and a number of respected chiefs. From the late Paul Josling to the late John Black, and from the now-retired David Sparling to Keith Hodgkinson and now Marty Bedard, Mike said the chiefs, as well as the deputy-chiefs, have created a department he feels safe in himself, and one he feels safe having his daughter join.
Jenna said that, from watching the fire department and firefighters grow as a daughter of a firefighter to now being one herself makes her confident that she will be safe.
Another change over Mike’s time as a firefighter that made it easier for him to encourage his daughter to join is how emotions are handled.
Jenna said she knows that, once upon a time, firefighters had to hide their emotions, but now it’s different. Everyone is encouraged to be upfront and honest about what they’re experiencing, she said, because having a healthy mindset is key to being able to work with your fellow firefighters and support the team.
Mike agreed, saying the firefighters are like a family and support each other. He said when he started, new firefighters would know they’d been accepted if they were dunked in a portable water tank by one of the senior officers, now, he says, some gentle ribbing is a sign that you’ve been accepted. Jenna said she was happy the first time someone joked about her height because she knew it was done out of love. She was, however, quick to say she would be the star of the show if there was a need to access tight spaces.
Jenna’s decision was also made easier, Mike said, by the fact people see more and more female firefighters working alongside their male counterparts more and more.
“It’s changed the dynamic of the department for the better,” he said.
Jenna said she had received a significant amount of support from her fellow female firefighters Kelsey Long and Amanda Becker. Long is still with the Blyth hall, while Becker has moved to the Wingham hall.
Jenna said seeing Becker doing ladder drills and competing right alongside the men gave her confidence, and that working alongside her was a huge benefit. She said the same of Long, especially since Long, as a paramedic, has a wealth of experience and knowledge to share for medical calls.
Mike said he’s always happy to have Long in his crew because, if there’s a medical issue, he knows she will be the one to handle it. Jenna agreed, saying that Long’s explanation of what’s happening and what she’s doing makes her value to the department apparent.
Mike said that could describe everyone. Everyone is a tool, he said, with the ability to be a firefighter but also deal with specific issues that they know because of their work and personal lives. He said mechanics are the go-to for vehicle issues, construction workers know how to breach and clear buildings and people who drive for a living are a good fit for manoeuvring the fire trucks and other equipment. He said each firefighter brings their own skills to the job.
For Jenna, that skill isn’t something she learned at work (she is in administration for the public works department of North Huron, after having an education as an environmental technician and previously working for Veolia previously). She found her niche on the scene of a fatality.
The fire department was called out to a man with no vital signs, and Jenna’s first reaction at seeing the man’s wife was to go to her, talk to her and comfort her.
She said that was the moment a “switch flipped” and she knew she was doing something valuable and something she was supposed to do.
Her father was in command of the scene and had her comforting the wife. She said she was even able to get the woman, on what was likely the worst day of her life, to smile and laugh.
“When you can make someone laugh on that day, it’s important, and it made me realize how happy I am to help,” she said.
Mike said he was so proud of Jenna for stepping in, listening and helping someone going through such a traumatic experience. Since then, she has started to be the go-to for the department when it comes to comforting families.
Mike said he has had a number of moments like that throughout his career, including when he was fortunate enough to be part of a crew that saved someone’s life. He said that, when you see someone walking around the community who otherwise might not have been, it’s a good feeling.
Finally, the support his wife has given him was also key in Mike feeling comfortable with Jenna joining the department. Both Mike and Jenna said that having that support at home is second-to-none when it comes to having the strength to run out the door at a moment’s notice.
While Mike had planned on retiring after 25 years, Jenna’s decision to join the fire department inspired him to stay on a little longer, though he said it’s a big commitment, especially for new recruits.
“You start looking at it, and you’re busy for two long weekends every summer, working one weekend a month beyond that and it can get daunting,” he said. “Jenna reignited a love in me to be a part of the department, so I decided to stay at it…. Who knows? I might get to 30 now.”
Looking back, Mike said there are innumerable good and great memories he’s had with the department, and he looks forward to Jenna having those same opportunities.
He said that one of the most memorable moments, however, was working at the former Ontario Fire College site in Gravenhurst, which closed in 2021. He said that he was happy to be a “dinosaur” in the business, meaning he had survived long enough to offer his experience with fellow firefighters through training programs like those formerly offered in Gravenhurst. Mike looked up to some of the department’s “dinosaurs” when he was younger and had just joined and said he was happy it was his turn.
He said working at the fire college is different from a lot of other educational programs because the students have not only a desire to learn, but a life-or-death purpose as well.
Jenna agreed, saying there are many firefighters who are older and have been fighting fires (as well as all the other requirements of the job) for more than a decade or two.
“There are a lot of very experienced firefighters there and they are always willing to help and pass on some advice,” she said.
Mike said the Blyth division has a lot of experienced firefighters, but also a lot of younger people as well, which helps keep the best on the front line of fire prevention and control.
“I’ll put on an air pack when I need to, but there’s a lot of younger people who may be able to run into a building and do it now, which means us older firefighters can focus on controlling the scene,” he said.
Jenna said that, since joining the department, she’s developed a better appreciation for how much work is actually involved when those fire trucks roll out.
“I didn’t realize how much work is there,” she said. “There is a lot behind the scenes people don’t know about.”
Mike agreed, saying that the amount of work has increased over time to the point that new firefighters are in for three years of intense training when they first join up, which can be a deterrent for some people.
In the trucks, there is now a designated “Captain’s Chair”, Mike said, which the firefighter in charge sits in to prepare the firefighters en route to the scene. Sometimes that means preparing them emotionally for what they could be facing, Mike said, but for every call, it means assigning responsibilities.
“For us, we get to the scene and it can look like chaos, but we know it looks more organized to those on the outside when we prepare,” he said.
Firefighters also debrief after every call, and it’s not a chance to point fingers, Mike said, but to review what’s happened and how they can improve.
One of the first and most important lessons according to both Mike and Jenna is to be there to help out, nothing more.
“You have to learn to look at a scene without judging, and that’s one of the first big things,” he said. “We’re just there to help, not to judge the people involved.”
Jenna followed up saying that, when a fire call comes in, it’s often the worst day of a person’s life or, at the very least, a bad situation, and the firefighters are just there to help. She said there is a lot of training focused on how to react to and act at scenes.