Canton Fire Department turns 150 years old
Thursday, September 12, 2019 - 9:57 am

By ADAM ATKINSON
North Country This Week

CANTON – Since 1869 the Canton Fire Department has been rolling out of its station and onto the scenes of fires and emergencies in the community, helping local residents in desperate times.

The department will celebrate this history with the public at its 150th anniversary celebration Saturday, Sept. 14 with a parade, open house and fireworks.

Those attending will see historical displays detailing just how far the department has evolved over the last century and a half, where they are now and where they are headed.

“For a greater part of the 150 years the fire department was in existence its primary function was to fight fires. From the bucket brigade to the hand pumper to the steam engine and then to motorized fire apparatus, the job always entailed just firefighting. In the last third of the department’s existence that has changed and we have become an all hazards department,” said Canton Fire Chief Robert M. Crowe.

The chief said that in addition to fighting fires, the Canton FD is often called in for vehicle extrication, water rescue, rope rescue, ice rescue, hazardous materials response, and technical rescues among other things.

“The public has come to expect that they can call the fire department for whatever emergency they have and we will come solve their problem,” Crowe said. “As these expectations have evolved, so has the department.”

The department has expanded its mission and improved its training and equipment to meet community expectations and needs, Crowe said.

“Providing emergency services to the community is an ever changing and growing challenge and we continue to meet that challenge in order to provide for the safety of our neighbors,” said the chief.

Crowe called the 1998 Ice Storm one of the biggest challenges the department has faced in recent history.

“Sustaining that prolonged operation while our own homes and families were affected was difficult at times but we were able to continue to serve our neighbors for the duration of the event,” Crowe said.

The chief said there have been a number of significant fires over the years which have presented challenges as well.

“Cook Hall at SUNY Canton, Gunnison Chapel at St. Lawrence University, and a number of fires in the downtown blocks come to mind. In addition to the fire incidents there have been numerous rescues and vehicle accidents that have left their marks on the department,” the chief said.

New members

Fielding women and men to fight fires and handle car accidents and other critical situations is key for volunteer fire departments. Many in recent years have had difficulty keeping membership numbers up. Canton’s numbers have fluctuated over the years, Crowe said, but the department started a recruitment and retention campaign a few years ago, with the help of a state grant.

“We did have some success with that and several of those who joined us then are still active with the department,” Crowe said. “We are lucky to be able to take advantage of the student population of the two schools in town and draw new members from them. We also lowered our minimum age to join to 17 and that has helped us draw in some local youth to join.”

Experience helps

New members benefit from decades of experience from the longer serving members, Crowe said.

The department has four members with more than 50 years of service each -- Jack Townsend 59 years, Elmer Votra 56 years, David Stacy 54 years, and Dale Gardner 51 years.

“They, along with our other long serving members (18 more members with 20 to 49 years of service) hold a lot of organizational memories that help to guide the department toward the future while acknowledging where we came from and how we got here,” the chief said.

Crowe added that maintaining the organizational culture has been a key to the longevity of the department. He said having long serving members pass that culture along is “invaluable.”

“These members also have amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge about the area we protect based on all the responses they have had over the years. Knowing how a previous fire behaved, in a downtown building for example, helps the current officers develop their plan of attack by drawing on that information,” Crowe said.

Train, train, train

Extensive training is necessary for all members of the department, Crowe said.

New members are required to complete either Basic Firefighter (79 hours) or Emergency Medical Technician (180 hours) training in their first year, said the chief. Training continues for those who desire to perform additional duties. Interior firefighter (50 hours), pump operator (24 hours) aerial operator (24 hours) and Fire Officer (63 hours) are just some of the additional courses required.

In addition, members are required to participate in a minimum of 24 hours of department training over the course of the year as well as complete additional annual training as mandated by the New York State Department of Labor, the chief said.

“It may seem like a lot of training (and it is) but it is what is necessary for our members to develop and maintain their proficiency. The public expects us to arrive with knowledgeable personnel who can solve their problem and in order to do this we must constantly train,” said Crowe.

Tools of the trade

The department is always looking at new technologies and equipment to see if it can help the members provide the best service, said the chief. However, cost is always a concern.

Crowe said the department was fortunate in the past to have received almost $500 thousand dollars in federal grant funding to replace aging protective and communications equipment. Normally those costs are borne by local taxpayers. The local municipal governments contribute tax revenues to the department’s budget, with grants and community financial donations providing added funding.

“We are currently waiting to hear on another federal grant of close to $200 thousand dollars to replace our 15-year-old air packs. We have also received some sizeable donations in the recent past that have allowed us to purchase two new thermal imaging cameras as well as a UTV and trailer,” Crowe said. The UTV is designed for both fire and EMS use and allows the department to access remote areas to suppress fires or remove injured people, said the chief.

“The department has a vehicle replacement plan in place in order to ensure that we have safe, reliable apparatus and have the funds in place to make those purchases,” Crowe said. “We currently have two engines that are approaching their 20-year life cycle and are scheduled to be replaced in the next several years.”

Community support

Even with grant funding, the chief credits community support with keeping the department well equipped and trained.

“Without the support of the community we would not be able to function. When it came time to construct a new fire station it was a group of civic-minded community members who formed the Friends of the New Canton Fire Station committee that solicited donations toward the project,” Crowe said.

All of those who donated to the project are listed prominently on a large plaque in the station as a reminder of how many people in the community contributed.

“We are also grateful that the town and village boards have seen fit to fund us at the level necessary to provide the citizens of Canton with the quality and level of service which they deserve. We believe that we are and have been good stewards of the money that the taxpayers have invested in the department. The entirety of those funds go toward the operation of the department and the purchase, maintenance and testing of the equipment that we use,” Crowe said.

Challenges

Moving forward the chief said challenges for the Canton Fire Department in the next few years will continue to be recruitment and funding.

“Recruitment and retention is at the top of the list. We can’t do the job that we do if we don’t have the people to do it with,” Crowe said. “This work is dangerous and stressful at times and is not for everyone. It can also be very rewarding. We are always looking for people who want to give back to the community and are willing to put in the time and effort required.”

“The department has a tremendous number of regulatory requirements that we have to meet with respect to annual maintenance and inspection costs, life spans on protective equipment, and replacement of equipment, all of which costs money,” Crowe said.

Anniversary festivities

The anniversary celebration on Sept. 14 will kick off with the parade at noon, starting at the Social Services building on Judson Street. The procession will continue past the old fire station on Court, then onto Main Street and down Riverside Drive to the current fire station.

There will be an open house at the station until 4 p.m. with a bounce house and a children’s firefighter combat challenge course set up. The county sheriff will have the Operation Safe ID station set up, and all of the department’s apparatus and equipment will be on display. There will be tours of the station and historical firefighting memorabilia for the public, as well as audio visual presentations throughout the day, said Chief Crowe.

Free hamburgers, hot dogs, ice cream and other refreshments will be available.

Finally, the day will conclude with a fireworks display at Canton Central.