Interview with retired Fire Chief Wayne Stanyer
How it all began
The Salisbury School was crowded that night in November 1956. One out of five households in the newly created community of Campbelltown had shown up to discuss the formation of a volunteer fire brigade. With the profits from the sale of its first 100 houses, Campbelltown’s developer, Trowbridge and Associates, had purchased a fire truck—really a pickup truck with a few lengths of hose and a siren, “that was it”. Now, the developer was turning the fire truck over to the community. While Trowbridge and Associates was responsible for all other services until the first 500 houses were occupied, it was the community’s responsibility to deal with fire protection.
Most of the 100 households had chosen to live in Campbelltown because housing was more affordable than in Edmonton. The new residents were anxious to protect their investment, despite the fact that some scoffed at them for buying in Campbelltown as it “will never amount to anything.” Certainly that was the case of Wayne Stanyer, a young process operator at Canadian Chemical, who had bought a showhome at 100 Conifer Street several months earlier. There was no lack of volunteers that night, both men and women, to man the fire truck and fight fires. Choosing a volunteer fire chief, though, was more difficult until someone pointed to Stanyer and said: “Only one guy here who knows anything, so he’d better be fire chief.”
Wayne Stanyer admits he had some fire fighting training, but not much. He was born in British Columbia where later he had married and started a family. His wife suffered badly from asthma, so they had decided to try the drier prairie climate of Edmonton. Canadian Chemical was hiring, and Stanyer found himself on one of four shifts that worked ‘round the clock making acetate yarn. After a few months on the job, Stanyer had joined the company’s fire fighting crew when he received rudimentary fire fighting training.
Stanyer had no idea how to organize a volunteer fire brigade, and he knew his knowledge and experience were limited. Happily, he received “untold help” from several sources: the fire chief at Canadian Chemical, Edmonton’s Fire Department’s training officer, and the provincial Fire Commissioner’s office. Stanyer also received help from Emergency Measures, a provincial organization that travelled around the province helping rural and small town fire departments.
Establishing a fire department
After receiving more training and instructions from these sources, Stanyer’s first order of business was to organize the volunteers. Besides Stanyer, 12 other men had volunteered for training. However, they all worked in Edmonton and were unable most days to respond to any fires. That’s where six housewives came to Stanyer’s rescue, and it was they who formed the nucleus of the daytime fire fighting crew.
“They did a whale of a job. They did everything,” Stanyer remembers. The volunteers met once a week for training sessions; in the winter, they met in Stanyer’s basement, and in the summer they trained outdoors. “People who you meet in the fire service are incredible, especially volunteers, because they are generous people to start with,” opines Stanyer.
Even though all the fire brigade crew members were volunteers, as was Stanyer, he felt they should receive some compensation for both attending training sessions and fighting fires. He went to the president of Trowbridge and Associates asking that his crew receive a stipend of $2 each per training session and $3 each for every fire fought. This request was readily granted. After that, Stanyer kept a timesheet for each volunteer, and once a month he submitted an invoice to Trowbridge and Associates. Trowbridge then cut him a cheque that he in turn distributed among the crew members.
The first few years saw no serious fires, although dry springs always brought with them a number of grass fires. The only other fire that Stanyer remembers during this time was at the home of one of his volunteers. The fire was caused by a polish cleaning rag under the kitchen sink that had combusted. Fortunately, it “created more smoke than damage.”
It was, though, a wake-up call, and Stanyer and his crew participated in Fire Prevention Week, designated the second week of October each year. Working in pairs, the volunteers visited all the homes in Sherwood Park, checking for any possible hazards and working to educate the homeowners on fire prevention. Later, as Sherwood Park grew, this was impossible to accomplish in one week, so Stanyer had to map out home inspections over a 10-year period. Stanyer even travelled to Great Britain once, along with five other fire chiefs, to learn how inspections were done there. Today, community safety educators carry out home safety visits and relay fire prevention strategies to homeowners. Commercial fire inspections are carried out by the Fire Prevention and Investigation division.
Sherwood Park’s first fire station
The first big change came in February 1959. The first 500 houses had been built and occupied, and Trowbridge and Associates turned over all community services to the Municipal District of Strathcona. The M.D. decided to build a fire hall in what was by now called Sherwood Park near the corner of Alder and Ash streets; the building is now the Strathcona County Museum and Archives. Stanyer had no input into its design as the provincial Emergency Management Office (EMO) had a standard design that was being used across the province. The fire hall had no drying tower but a sloped rack so the hoses could drain. The hoses had to dry well so the two layers of cotton over the rubber hose did not mildew. To dry a hose once it had drained, the volunteer firefighters rolled the hose flat, like a donut, and placed it in an electric heater.
One room at the back of the fire hall was used by the Legionnaires who were hired by the County to patrol Sherwood Park, since the hamlet had not yet negotiated a contract with the RCMP.
Also in 1959, the M.D. ordered a pumper truck, the community’s first, but forgot to tell anyone. Stanyer only learned of the purchase when he received a call from the M.D. office while at work, informing him that he had a pumper truck to pick up in Edmonton. The next day, Stanyer drove the new pumper back to Sherwood Park’s nearly completed fire hall. The ramp into the bay was not yet finished but, since it was winter and the ground was frozen, it was possible to drive the pumper into the bay. However, Stanyer knew that once the frost came out of the ground, the pumper could not be stored in the fire hall until the ramp was completed in the spring. Across the street there was an Esso station that agreed to store the pumper in one of its service bays at night. During the day, though, the pumper had to sit outside in freezing temperatures. This meant that no water could be kept in the pumper. If there was a fire, the truck had to be driven to the nearest fire hydrant and filled before answering the fire alarm. Of course, once the ramp was completed in the spring, both the pumper and the original fire truck, that had been stored in Stanyer’s own garage, were moved to the new fire hall.
Expanding the response area by adding new trucks
Up to this point, the volunteer fire brigade was responsible for only those fires that happened in Sherwood Park. It fell to the Edmonton Fire Department to respond to fires in the rest of the County. This was an awkward situation; rural residents were not well protected, yet Sherwood Park’s volunteer fire brigade was unable to answer County calls due to Sherwood Park’s insurance policy.
Insurance rates were based on the type of structure, its materials and the hamlet’s firefighting capability. With only one pumper truck, insurance rates in Sherwood Park would skyrocket if the volunteer fire brigade answered rural calls. This was not an unusual situation as all small towns in the province faced the same quandary. Rural fire protection associations got around this problem by buying fire trucks and equipment that the closest town then stored for the rural brigades. This was the case of the County; volunteer brigades were formed throughout the County with equipment based at Ardrossan, South Cooking Lake and Josephburg.
In the case of Sherwood Park, Stanyer and his crew were finally able to respond to rural calls in 1961. It was at this time that the Town of Beverly amalgamated with the City of Edmonton. Beverly had had its own brigade and pumper truck, neither of which was useful to the City of Edmonton’s Fire Department. The city put the Beverly pumper truck up for sale. The M.D. of Strathcona alerted Stanyer who, after inspecting the truck, advised the M.D. that it was worth about $8,000. Unbeknownst to Stanyer or the M.D., another municipality was interested in the Beverly pumper and had put in a bid for that same amount. As incredible good luck would have it, the M.D. of Strathcona put in a bid of $8,025. Now the proud operator of two pumpers, Stanyer and his crew were finally in a position to answer rural calls without affecting Sherwood Park’s insurance rates.
“And that’s how we got going as a County fire department. It didn’t just happen overnight,” Stanyer says. The former volunteer fire chiefs at Ardrossan, Josephburg and South Cooking Lake became deputy fire chiefs under Stanyer.
Answering the call
Answering fire alarms was somewhat problematic in the early days. The brigade tried CB radios, but they were useless for any distance communication. This improved with the introduction of a separate radio band and walkie-talkies that were in all of the trucks.
Alerting the volunteers that they were needed at a fire was the job of the AGT telephone operators in the telephone exchange. Each operator had the name of five volunteer firefighters who she would call once the alarm was raised. After the exchange closed, AGT installed a fire telephone system whereby telephones were installed in 10 homes that received the call simultaneously. This sped up the response time considerably. Eventually, a siren was installed on the roof of the fire hall that could be activated from any of the telephones and heard throughout the community.
By 1964, Wayne Stanyer was at the end of his wits. He was still working full time at Canadian Chemical and as his responsibilities grew, was spending more and more time on his job as volunteer fire chief. He wasn’t getting much sleep. More than once, he would go to a fire after finishing his eight-hour shift at Canadian Chemical, only to go back to another eight-hour shift at Canadian Chemical the next day. In the spring, with all the bush fires that invariably happened, he often went days without any good sleep or time off.
So, he went to the municipality (now referred to as the County of Strathcona No. 20) with an ultimatum: “Hire me full time or find someone else.” There were five councillors at that time. They asked him how much he would expect in salary, and when he answered “$6,000”, his salary with Canadian Chemical, most of the councillors reacted negatively. It was the one councillor from Sherwood Park who felt the municipality needed a full time fire chief, and it was he who finally convinced the four rural councillors to agree.
Growth in the department
The number of full time firefighters grew slowly. It wasn’t until 1968 that Bob Oscroft was taken on as the second full time firefighter at the princely salary of $400 a month. He was Stanyer’s deputy fire chief for 10 years before he left for other pastures. Other early full time firefighters were Tommy Lukinuk and Peter Sieben. Oscroft, Lukinuk and Sieben had all started with the fire department as volunteers. Neither full time staff nor volunteers were taken on or let go by the fire chief. That responsibility rested with Council, although it probably acted on the advice that Stanyer forwarded with the applications. Interestingly, the volunteers had no problem in working alongside former volunteers who were now being paid to do the job. Rather, it was some of the full time staff who questioned the abilities and suitability of the volunteers. By the mid-1980s, the ratio of volunteers to full time paid staff was roughly 2.5:1 as there were still 100 volunteer firefighters, 25 in each of Sherwood Park, Josephburg, South Cooking Lake and Ardrossan, and only 35 to 40 full time firefighters and five dispatchers.
When the number of full time staff reached six, the full timers wanted to join a union. Their salaries were very, very low and they saw union membership as a way of having their wages rise. Stanyer and his deputy, though, were forbidden by the Fire Prevention Act to join a union. In some municipalities, the fire chief appointed up to five deputies as a way of preventing the men from joining a union. Stanyer did not play this game and supported the men’s wish for both union membership and higher salaries. When he retired as fire chief in 1986, Stanyer had only two deputies, one in charge of operations, the other in charge of training and fire prevention.
Firefighting, of course, was the raison d’être of the Fire Department. In thinking back over his years of fighting fires, Stanyer recognized one thing: “You never knew until you got there what you were going to find.”
For him, three fires stand out in his memory:
- One took place in the mid 1970s at a company located at 34 Street and Baseline Road. Besides reclaiming used oil, it packaged antifreeze. A nightshift was bottling the antifreeze when a fire broke out. Once at the scene, Stanyer and his crew were hampered by the fact there was only one waterline and only one fire hydrant. Imperial Oil had a pumper that arrived at the scene, but was unable to help because of the lack of water. Stanyer called in a ladder truck from the Edmonton Fire Department because the County did not own one. Meanwhile, barrels of antifreeze were exploding and being tossed across 34 Street into Texaco's tank farm. By this time, the media had arrived demanding to know why Imperial Oil's truck was not helping and why there wasn't enough water to fight the fire effectively. Stanyer was kept busy fighting the fire and keeping the media at bay. The fire lasted two full days, and Stanyer and his crew were exhausted at its end.
- More than once Stanyer and his crew responded to alarms at the former CIL plant, also located on Baseline Road between 34 and 50 streets. During this time, there were two serious fires, but the company’s pressure relief valves kept popping out, blowing out windows in the apartments on the north side of Baseline.
- Another major fire broke out at a company that made asphalt shingles located south of Baseline, opposite Imperial Oil’s refinery. This is one fire that Stanyer did not see through to its end. The company backed the shingles with waste paper that was kept in bales. As he clambered over the bales trying to get from one area of the fire to another, Stanyer strained a knee that he had hurt while curling. By noon of the second day of the fire, Stanyer couldn’t walk. He ended up in hospital and had to have the cartilage removed.
In between fighting fires, Stanyer kept his crew busy maintaining equipment, and attending training sessions at the fire fighting training program at Vermilion. Later, after they moved into their new Peter Hemingway-designed fire hall in 1975, on Sherwood Drive, the men could play pool or badminton in the fire hall's recreation room.
Ambulance service added
In 1972, ambulance and paramedic services became part of the Fire Department’s job. At the time, the province was aware there was a need to impose provincial standard training and qualifications on ambulance responders since “standards were all over the place.” The province gave municipal firefighters two years to take and pass an emergency medical technician certificate, a first step to attaining paramedic standard. In Strathcona County, all full time firefighters and some volunteers took the training. Even today, not all ambulance crews have paramedic status; however all crews are cross-trained as either a Firefighter/Paramedic or a firefighter/Emergency Medical Technician.
The first ambulance in Strathcona County was the fire chief’s station wagon. It was pressed into service to take accident victims and the ill into Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital or the University Hospital; there was no hospital in the municipality. For equipment, all it had were resuscitators. Besides having almost no equipment, the attendants had to be on their knees in the back of the car, a not very comfortable or efficient position to deal with the injured.
In 1972, the County of Strathcona purchased its first ambulance, a converted van. Stanyer had to go to Vancouver where the conversion was taking place. He expected that the conversion would be complete when he arrived. But, to his horror, it was not near finished. So, for several days, Stanyer rolled up his sleeves and pitched in to help convert the van. What should have taken a couple of days took 10 days, but finally he drove the new ambulance into one of the bays at the fire hall.
Some of the duties that befall a firefighter are sadder than others. Over the years, the fire chief and his crew responded to a couple of suicides. They also had to deal with the recovery of bodies; once a couple of children who had taken shelter under a set of stairs. Another grisly incident happened when a semi-tanker rolled on Highway 21 before it was twinned; the driver had been sprayed with fuel and caught on fire.
The original fire hall had only one bay. With the acquisition of the Beverly pumper in 1961 and other vehicles such as the fire chief’s station wagon, the fire department soon outgrew the space, and in 1964 a three-bay extension was built onto the fire hall. There was also a kitchen and an open area that Stanyer used as a meeting and map room. Three cots were available as well, although they were never really used. By now, the County of Strathcona had a contract with the RCMP, which occupied space at the end of the new addition.
Now known as Station 1, a new fire hall opened in 1975 on Sherwood Drive. Much larger than the original fire hall, it had six-and-one-half drive-through bays (a big advantage), a multi-use room, a lecture room and a recreational room all on the main floor. Upstairs on the second floor, was the fire prevention office and the sleeping dorms (the day crew worked a 10-hour shift and the night crew, 14).
The increasing responsibilities of a Fire Chief
Over the years, the administrative side of Stanyer’s job grew. When the M.D. had taken over responsibility for fire protection in 1959, Stanyer had to travel every month into Edmonton where the M.D. had its offices. He reported on the number of training practices held and fires fought. He also kept records of member attendance at training sessions and at fires, and what type of training was done and by whom.
Too, by Alberta law, every fire had to be investigated and determined whether its cause was accidental or intentional. Investigating the cause of each fire turned out to be “a fair bit of the job” for Stanyer because he had to interview people, take notes and write reports. If he determined a fire was accidental, his reports went no further. But if he determined a fire was intentional, he turned over his report to the provincial Fire Commission for further investigation.
Budgeting was another responsibility that eventually fell to the fire chief. At first, the County Secretary Treasurer simply added five per cent to the budget each year, but as the County grew in population so did the complexity of budgeting, and Stanyer found himself submitting annual budget requests to the Secretary Treasurer.
Stanyer also had to try to convince Council to upgrade much needed equipment. The five pairs of boots and five helmets that had come with the first fire truck were hardly adequate for the number of volunteers who made up the brigade. When the brigade took possession of its first pumper truck, they found two sets of breathing apparatus, a start to be sure but still not adequate.
“One thing I’ll say about Council over the years, the answer [to his requests for more equipment] was either yes or no, either we can afford it or not.” However, rather than purchase second grade materials or equipment, Council preferred to defer a purchase until the best equipment could be afforded.
“We ended up as one of the best equipped municipal departments in Alberta. We had excellent equipment. We had a good variety to do the job.”
One of Stanyer’s last administrative duties before he retired in 1986 was to have the Fire Department adopt the Canadian Fire Chiefs Association’s suggestion for standard uniform accessories. As the shoulder flashes and other accessories had to be changed every time the County’s name or governance changed, Stanyer thought adopting a Canadian standard would be a reasonable move.
Fighting fires, taking courses at Vermilion and doubling as ambulance responders were all part of a demanding job, a job that once in a while called for some fun. A camaraderie was formed among the volunteers and full time firefighters as they shared the same training and dangers. They often socialized together; they had barbecues and picnics, and formed a square dance club that held its dances in the fire hall. Dedication to the job, courses successfully completed and wins at competitions were all recognized at the annual Firemen’s Ball. The Fire Department also took part in Medieval Days (a local community event that centred on the Sherwood Forest theme from the story of Robin Hood, the inspiration for the naming of Sherwood Park). The former Beverly fire truck, after it was retired from active service, was stripped down and made into a parade truck. Sparky’s fire truck was used during the Medieval Days’ parade.
A work-related activity that the firefighters joined in with enthusiasm was the firefighting competitions that sprang up across the province. The competition was composed of three separate events. One event was to hook up three lengths of hose and knock over a target. A fast team could accomplish this in five seconds. Another event was to replace the middle length of hose, simulating what the firefighters had to do when a length of hose burst. Good times for this event were 12 or 13 seconds.
These competitions were held annually at different towns across the province. In 1968, Stanyer and his crew decided they were going to win that year’s competition and went prepared for the banquet that always followed the competitions. Even though the announcement of which team had won hadn’t been made yet, Stanyer and his team donned their Robin Hood and merrymen costumes. Stanyer, of course, was Robin Hood. Someone was Friar Tuck. Another was Maid Marion. One of the volunteers piped them into the banquet hall.
“We set that place on its heels,” Stanyer chuckles.
In reflecting over his 30 years of service, Stanyer feels satisfied. “I feel very blessed that I was put in at this point in time to do this job. And the outside help that was provided for me to deal with the job as best as I could. And yes, I’m proud of where we got to.”
Taken from a personal interview with Wayne Stanyer, December 2013.
Wayne Stanyer, 1931 - 2015.