There are times, Wally Remers admits, that he still finds himself reaching for the pager around his belt, half expecting the call to come in. It was his responsibility, after all, for the past 32 years as a volunteer firefighter in Floradale – 20 years of which he served as captain – until his retirement January 1. It came sooner than he would have wished.
“It hits home a little bit for me,” says Remers about his departure from the department. “It hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Remers is at work when I call, but he readily offers to meet me at the Floradale fire hall to talk; and sure enough, within minutes he’s there, dressed in a crisp uniform and ready. It’s a trip he’s made countless times before on short notice, but accompanying him this time is his wife Elaine, and their granddaughter, little Myka Martel.
“Well, he’s an eager fellow, lots of energy,” said Floradale district chief Dennis Frey appreciatively. “Folk’s got a big heart, willing to help.”
He notes that though Remers did not live closest to the station, he was often the first one there in an emergency.
“So that gives you a little bit of an idea. And we would get seriously worried if he just sauntered into the station when we had an alarm.”
For three decades, Remers has been at the ready to answer those pager calls. They could come at any time: at the machine shop where he works, during a social event or family outing or a quiet evening at home. They could come on the best days or on the worst. But regardless of when the call came, it always meant that someone, somewhere nearby might be in distress.
“I’m always reminded that when the pager goes off, no matter how bad your day is, somebody’s got it a lot worse,” says Remers. “I’m just there to make somebody’s life a little bit easier.”
He couldn’t have done what he did without the support of his family, though it was often not easy for them as well, he notes.
“Well, there’s times that I didn’t sleep after he left at night because I worried, wondering what’s going to happen,” says Elaine Remers.
“And there were times that there was disappointment, because he all of a sudden left a family function and then he would be gone for the afternoon. Or he left us sitting somewhere sometimes,” she says with a laugh. “But overall I enjoyed being his support. It was something we could do together in the community.”
Remers did not just brave the smoke and fire during his time with the Woolwich department, a daunting task for anyone in its own right, but as captain he had to lead a team into the fray with him.
“It’s a big responsibility to take care of your crew going in. You know, you have to make three go in, and it’s my responsibility that three go out and that everybody goes home tonight,” he says.
It’s a dangerous job, for sure, but not every call that came in meant bad news.
“I’ve also had some good fire calls. I’m known as …,” he pauses and laughs. “I guess I did emergency childbirth … So you get the good calls too, and bringing life into this world is huge,” he remembers fondly.
That was one of the bright points in his time. Remers still remembers the trepidation of his fellow firefighters when the call came in. This was back when many of them were young and single, and not all that keen to see a live birth. Rushing into a burning building, sure, but a birth? No thanks.
“The guys, a lot of them were single and [they] kind of just looked around and [said], ‘you go, you go,’” he says, pointing his finger around for emphasis. Remers, though, was happily married with two young kids at the time, so he was chosen for the job.
“I still get razzed about that,” he adds with another laugh.
It’s the guys, his fellow firefighters, and the camaraderie of the job that he will really miss, he says. Whether it was the practice drills they’d go through routinely, or returning to the station after a call for debrief, or just the simple in-jokes and time spent together at the hall.
“You know what? They’re family,” he says. “They’re family. … When each and every one of the firefighters will give your arm for your brother.”
Over the years, it’s a family that’s suffered some losses though, he adds. In a job as hazardous as firefighting, with all the immediate dangers and potential health impacts that come with it, it’s something he’s seen happen before his eyes. Remers recalls his fellow firefighter Paul Bowman, who had been with the Woolwich Fire Department as long as him until his passing in 2012.
“Of all the years that I’ve been on, what really hurt was when we had to lay our firefighter to rest. He was volunteering here, and within a week he was ill and he passed away,” said Remers about the sudden death.
“Of all the times I went through the funeral home, that was about the hardest to see your own firefighter, lay him to rest.”
But despite the low points, Remers again recalls the highs. He remembers the fun of bringing his girls down to the fire station to show them trucks; he remembers all the times he was able to help make somebody’s life better. When Remers looks back on his career as a firefighter, knowing what he knows now about the difficulties he’d face and the health issues he’d experience, he doesn’t hesitate to say he would still do it all over again.
His only regret is that he wishes he could bring his grandchildren, like Myka, to the fire hall the same way he did his own daughters.
“But I just live around the corner and I can still bring them. I’m always welcome here, I know that,” he says.
Remers gave 32 years of service to the community as a volunteer firefighter. And while he is still figuring out what his next steps will be, he knows he’s not done. He knows that he still has plenty more to give to his friends and neighbours.
“I will miss the guys,” he says. “For me, it’s still fresh and they know that.”
But he adds: “There comes a time in a person’s life, I think, when you have to admit you’re done. And don’t hold any grudges, which I’m not, and carry on and use my experience for something else. Because for me, this isn’t it. I’m going to carry on with my experience that I had for the last 32 years, it’s valuable, and for me not to use it from here on out – I have to.”