Firefighter for a Day, plenty of reasons to give it a try

SDFES firefighters receive training instructions during this October 3, 2020 training day. (The Leader/Blancher photo)

SOUTH DUNDAS – Getting up in the middle of the night to help fight a fire at your neighbour’s house, or responding to a traffic accident isn’t for everyone. But it could be for you. That is the message from the South Dundas Fire and Emergency Service as they get ready to host their first ever “Firefighter for a Day” event at Matilda Hall this weekend on August 21.

The SDFES faces a shortage of new recruits and are looking for women and men to join its paid-on-call firefighting service.

The Leader talked with three SDFES firefighters – one each from the Iroquois, Morrisburg and Williamsburg stations – to learn why they joined, what it is like, and what it means for them to help their community.

“They are my family,” said Bryan Holmes, a 12-year veteran in the Iroquois station. “I grew up in the fire hall and around it. I thought about joining for a long time.”

His late father, Allen, was a member of the Iroquois Fire Service. It was Bryan’s friend and now fellow firefighter Trevor Riopelle who convinced him to sign up.

“I had the mindset that I wanted to be on the fire department, but wasn’t sure if it was going to be,” Holmes said. “Trevor told me I should join and now it’s been 12 years.”

For Holmes, the best part of being on the fire service is helping others.

“I can help my community when people are in need. I feel good about that,” he said.

Julena Barnhartd, now 21, joined the SDFES Morrisburg station as a recruit two days before her 18th birthday inspired by wanting to help others.

She said she knew she wanted to join after a significant tragedy in her own life, the loss of her family’s home to fire.

“I knew I wanted to help people in some way. I didn’t know how exactly” she explained. “But after seeing how our fire departments helped my family on one of the worst days imaginable, I was like ‘this is what I want to do – that is how I want to help people’.”

Barnhartd said that despite the firefighting profession being an historically male-dominated career choice, that has not mattered in her experience with the fire service.

“They have been amazing,” Barnhartd said. “I didn’t think they would be open to a woman joining, but they have been nothing but supportive. Everyone has been awesome, at every station.”

After joining the fire service and completing some of the training through the SDFES, she enrolled at St. Lawrence College in Brockville for the Pre-Service Firefighter Education and Training Program. Her goal is to work for a city fire department, while remaining on the local fire service if possible.

When it came to training and education, Barnhartd said the other firefighters were very helpful.

“At school, I found some of the items really challenging,” she said. After talking to a couple of other members of the SDFES, firefighters Riopelle and Chris Paulino, helped with setting up extra training so she could succeed in her program at SLC, and at the department.

“They helped me so much to get to the point where I wasn’t worried about having to go and do something at a call or in school,”

Helping each other out, camaraderie, was a big draw for SDFES Williamsburg station firefighter Cody Cassell who joined the service five years ago.

“I like the fellowship with the other firefighters,” he said. “Everyone gets along with each other, we learn new things. We are doing something important and giving back to the community. It means something to others.”

He added that the adrenaline rush of responding to calls is an added benefit.

Cassell joined after a family friend suggested it.

“I did and it has worked out well,” he said.

Balancing his work, home, and other volunteer commitments with being on the fire service hasn’t been an issue for him and his family.

“I have four kids, work in Ottawa and coach minor hockey,” Cassell said. “I make it work.”

One of the most enjoyable things he said is the training available at the SDFES for its paid-on-call firefighters. The service takes a hands-on approach to learning on the job.

“They tailor the training to the firefighters, which is great,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by the other two firefighters interviewed by The Leader.

“I like the fact we can specialize and we have a choice in what we can learn,” Holmes said. “The more we know, the better we are. The fire service is very supportive of that.”

Barnhartd agreed adding that while she went to school for some of her training, the mentorship from fellow firefighters on the SDFES has been invaluable.

Dealing with tragedy and loss is a difficult part of the job.

Barnhartd said one of the toughest parts of the job is seeing the reaction of people on their own worst days. Given her past experiences, she feels she is able to better sympathize with those at the scene of a fire call.

“It’s tough. I know how it feels. I understand some of the struggles that they are going through,” she said.

Holmes explained that the resources available for firefighters dealing with some of the trauma they assist with is very supportive.

“They offer us councilling. We have First Responders United in Cardinal if we need it,” he said. “We also check in with the younger service members to see if they are OK, especially when they are in training. We support each other.”

Barnhartd said, the upcoming Firefighter for a Day event on August 21 is a great opportunity for someone considering joining the fire service.

“Just try it. It has made me that much more of a confident person. I can help others in my community.”

Cassell added, “Everyone can do their part, help out. It is a great feeling knowing I did something for my community.”

Holmes said he encourages anyone thinking about joining to try out the Firefighter for a Day event.

“There is always a job for everyone. Try it out. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man,. Women are just as capable as men. It feels good to help in the community you live in.”

To register for the Firefighter for a Day event, contact the SDFES at 613-543-2673 or email

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