After 35 years as a volunteer firefighter in Elmira, the sound of the station’s test siren each Saturday is bittersweet for Joe Kelly.Having called it a career last month, it’s going to take a while for the change to sink in.
“For me, hearing that test siren is like a soothing balm,” Kelly explained. “Just knowing that our dedicated firefighters here in Elmira are there to look after us is a very special feeling. It’s almost like when you have a sore arm and you put that A535 on it and you know it’s going to make it feel better. Well, that siren reminds me of that soothing balm that we do as firefighters, to go into the community and look after people in need.”
The tough part is not being there for the guys anymore.
“We have some of the best volunteer firefighters here in Elmira,” he said. “I would trust anyone of them to pack my parachute. There is a real dedication there with volunteer firefighters; they aren’t just doing it for the paycheque. They really do care about the community.”
Working in a small town like Elmira means that every call could be –and often is – for someone you know.
Over the years, that has meant responding to serious medical emergencies involving friends and loved ones, and it takes a toll.
But the Elmira department has been ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with post-traumatic stress, Kelly said.
And the community is incredibly supportive of the department.
“The community has been so gracious, from the businesses to the citizens, the schools and the township itself. They truly recognize what we do. And there is a big difference between a police officer, an ambulance attendant and a firefighter: A police officer will take a life to save a life; an ambulance driver won’t risk a life to save a life; where as a firefighter will risk a life to save a life. So that separates what we do as firefighters, because we’re running in when everyone else is running out.”
Furthermore, there’s a major distinction to be made between volunteer firefighters and their career counterparts who receive exorbitant compensation.
Kelly began his career in 1980, following in the footsteps of his brother Kieran (currently Elmira’s district chief) and brother-in-law Tony Foerster.
His passion for the role grew throughout his tenure, despite undergoing a serious training accident in 1985.
Back then, there were no rope standards for firefighters in North America, Kelly explained.
“The only standard for rope in the books was that they were three-eighths for window washers,” he explained. “So we had used this old manila rope for probably 30 years and nothing was wrong with it. So we were practicing a rescue off the top of a building, lowering a firefighter down to the ground. We lowered one of the guys down to the ground and I volunteered to go next. Just as they got me over the side of the building the rope broke and I fell down onto a metal stokes basket. The stokes basket had metal wire reinforcing rods welded into them and one of the rods went through the base of my skull and another through the base of my spine. When I hit the ground, I broke my cranium and the skull bone caved in and severed the nerves to the right side. Had it been over just a few millimetres I would have died instantly.”
After spending six days in a coma, Kelly awoke, missing hearing in his right ear, but otherwise okay.
Not a month later and he was back at the fire station, meeting with the guys.
“You can talk about providence or anything you like, but it was quite amazing that the day before we were doing first aid training and the very last thing we did was head injuries. So everything was in everybody’s mind, fresh. Also, ambulances back in those days used to do patient transfers. So it just so happened that an ambulance was coming into Elmira to do a patient transfer. So I had an ambulance there within minutes.”
The accident also happened to occur just hours after Kelly proposed to his wife.
Once he was well, he got right back on the horse, as dedicated as ever.
In fact, Kelly redoubled his commitment to safety training.
And there was a silver lining.
“After the accident, rope safety became highly regulated and rope companies developed specialized ropes for all kinds of different conditions,” Kelly said. “So my loss was everyone else’s gain. So why would I complain?”
And that’s just the way Kelly thinks: it’s all about the team of firefighters and the community.
Asked about the medal of bravery he was awarded in 2001, Kelly is quick to point out the three other Elmira volunteer firefighters also honoured with the medal (Dale Martin, Tim Gingrich and Dave Holmes).
“There’s no I with the volunteer firefighters, it’s always we,” Kelly said. “We depend on each other and I am so proud of the guys I have had the privilege to work with over the years.”