March 11, 2008, Varennes, Que. - The two dead small-town firefighters risked their lives for little or no pay and few fringe benefits, other than the reward of helping a neighbour in crisis.
March 11, 2008
By The Canadian Press
Mourners gathered Monday for the modest funeral of Mathieu Emond, a 26-year-old father of an infant girl and part-time firefighter who hoped to land a big-city gig.
Two dozen of his burly comrades hugged and cried outside the church in Varennes, just northeast of Montreal.
“It was very difficult for the firefighters, it was very difficult for the family,'' said Varennes fire chief Gilles Carle.
Carle stood near a fire truck decorated in wreaths, including one fashioned into the logo of Emond's favourite hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens.
“My firefighters were holding onto each other. I'm proud of them.''
Andre Manseau, 18, died Sunday when a garage fell on him in the aftermath of a fire in Val-des-Monts, Que., north of Ottawa. Manseau joined the fire department six months ago.
Manseau and Emond are part of a massive brigade of part-time and volunteer firefighters who staff 91 per cent of Canadian fire halls, according to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.
“In many cases, they become involved in their community, they look at it as helping their neighbour in a time of need,'' said Martin Bell, vice-president of the Canadian Volunteer Fire Services Association and a firefighter in the rural municipality of Conquerall Bank, near Halifax.
The families of Canadian volunteer firefighters who die on the job are often left in a financial hole with scant insurance coverage.
Bell says settlements often sink as low as $10,000.
“Some departments will have Volkswagen coverage, some will have Cadillac coverage,'' he said. “It just depends on the ability to pay.''
The paltry benefits are often accompanied by little attention when small-town firefighters die. Emond's low-key funeral was a marked contrast to the pomp that accompanies the death of a big-city firefighter.
“In the rural areas, when an individual loses their house, or someone loses a barn, it doesn't make big news,'' Bell said.
“But that doesn't mean the job is any safer or easier.''
A firefighter from Calgary was among the few mourners who travelled from across Canada to Emond's service.
“We came out to support a fallen brother,'' said Russ Bilton, an assistant deputy chief in Calgary.
“Any time we lose someone it's a terrible tragedy. The pain is felt right across the country.''
Bilton said he hoped to meet with the Varennes chief to discuss ways to make the job safer.
Emond was searching for the source of smoke in a basement with two other firefighters when flames erupted.
The other two managed to escape as the fire intensified. Two residents also escaped.
In Manseau's case, the garage collapsed as he was involved in the mop-up after the fire had been doused.
Both blazes are under investigation.
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