After more than three decades with the Agassiz Fire Department (AFD), John VanTol has seen it all.
The captain has formally retired from the department after 35 years of service and is looking back at a career filled with memorable moments and memorable team members.
A life-long Agassiz resident, VanTol joined the department in 1983 because he wanted to be part of the action in town.
“Living on the farm, we had seen fires happening [and] all the excitement of the fire department,” he remembers. “A couple friends of mine had joined, and I guess I just wanted to join the gang.
“When I started, it was the excitement of going to all these different places throughout Agassiz for different kinds of fire calls and accidents.”
Deputy fire chief Gerald Basten started with AFD just a year after VanTol. He said, back then, the department responded to 50 or 60 calls per year, and operated only two fire trucks.
Now the team responds to 250 to 300 calls a year and operates six pieces of apparatus, including rescue service vehicles and medical first aid.
But back in the ’80s, things were a bit simpler. The fire hall still relied on an alarm system to alert the department to a new call instead of using pagers. And VanTol remembers riding in the back of fire trucks – a thing of the past too.
A few calls stick out to VanTol, including the rescue of a farmer on Mountainview Road who, to put it bluntly, nearly lost his head.
The farmer had been hooking up an implement to the back of his tractor, and, when he reached down, some machinery slipped, and the man’s head became stuck between the tractor’s three-point hitch and the wheel.
“He was pinned. There was nothing he could do,” VanTol recalled. “He was lucky somebody was there [to call]. We were able to secure the three-point hitch and then we were able to pull it away and get his head out from being squashed.”
Another call that has stuck with VanTol happened on Seabird Island. A man was trapped inside a burning house.
VanTol said two firefighters, Tyson Wells and Mike Price, went into the home and found the man. But when they brought him out, it appeared the rescue had come too late.
“As they dragged him out of the house, they dropped him on the ground and we thought the guy was dead, just the way the body moved.
“All of a sudden they sprayed a little bit of water on him and the guy was moving around. So we saved that guy’s life right there. There was an amazing feeling at the hall after a call like that.”
A team like no other
VanTol said camaraderie among the department is vital for a strong team.
“Right now we have an excellent fire department because the camaraderie amongst the members is unbelievable,” he said. “It comes from spending time together…working together and getting really good, positive results.”
When city fire departments from Vancouver or Surrey come to Agassiz for training, they’re often surprised at the high-level equipment and training the force has, VanTol said.
Rural teams often have bigger challenges to tackle than city departments, and more ground to cover. Rope rescues, highway crashes, farm accidents, jaws of life and fires are all part of a day’s or week’s work for the team.
In bigger cities, the number of fire hydrants makes water more accessible for fighting fires. But for Agassiz and Harrison fire crews, a huge number of calls are in areas without hydrants.
“So you have to decide, as an officer – when you get a call – are you going to have hydrants or need a tanker shuttle? We get all these other decisions to make as officers.”
Over the years, Basten, VanTol and the Agassiz team have tackled some incredible feats, including the Agassiz Deli fire in 1986, and the Kent Hotel and T. Marlow apartment fires in the mid-2000s, not to mention a number of barn fires, often in adverse weather conditions.
“John always showed up in four layers of warm clothing,” Basten said with a laugh. “He’s a farmer.”
VanTol can’t remember exactly when he became captain, but he has three captain helmets – and those were earned every five years when the captain was voted in. (Fire department positions are no longer elected, but go through a hiring process.)
The now-retired captain has done a lot of recruiting and training over the last 15 years and loves watching new members progress.
“The neatest part about it all is seeing these young people join the hall,” he said. “You see young kids coming in and they join and they’re…at the point in their lives where they could go either go to the good side or the bad side of the road.
“By joining – not all of them but a majority of them – become good people because of the way the hall is structured…Now, several of them have become captains and are starting to take over the training role.”
Basten recalled how VanTol was promoted in the department because of his dedication to bettering the team.
“John was always invested in the fire department, he was always a key player. He was promoted because of the time and commitment he put forward.
“We have a number of newer, younger faces coming up to fill his shoes, but we’re confident they will do well because John’s mentored them over the past five or 10 years.”
Firefighter’s last shift
VanTol isn’t going straight into full retirement but he’s ready to make room for other things in his life.
Over the years, VanTol, like all firefighters, has made his sacrifices – and so have his wife and kids. He’s been paged from birthday parties, dinners and other holidays to attend calls.
“You’re sitting there and the pager goes off and you leave the whole family behind…It’s a real sacrifice for the family.
“It’s time to spend more time with the family now.”
Thursday, July 26 was VanTol’s last scheduled practice with the department, and he almost didn’t go, but his wife convinced him it was a good idea.
That’s because the team had planned a Firefighter’s End of Last Shift tradition. Dispatch did a page reporting his start date, end date and years with the department. The firefighters then lined up for inspection and VanTol was presented with a plaque and his helmet. His helmet number was retired.
Then, Basten, who has worked with VanTol the longest, drove him home in a fire engine, with the entire team following in the other engines and rescue vehicles.
When they pulled up to his house, his wife, daughter and grandchild were waiting outside, along with neighbours who had come out to congratulate him.
“That was amazing…something I’ll never forget.”