Following footsteps into firefighting cause

Published on February 14, 2014
Brian Campbell has served as a volunteer firefighter in Stellarton for 40 years. Rosalie MacEachern photo


Brian Campbell insists he is not the longest-serving firefighter around but he is proud to have completed 40 years of service to the Stellarton Volunteer Fire Department. He also has a pretty good record of being the fastest guy to the fire station when most calls come in.

“I live pretty close by and I’m quick. I can be up, out and in Fire Engine number 1 in two minutes. Believe me, I’ve been timed,” he said.

Campbell, whose father was a firefighter and who has two brothers, including Chief Dwight Campbell, on the Stellarton force, would have joined earlier but he was taking a plumbing course in Truro.

“From the time my father joined when he was in his thirties I knew it was something I wanted. I remember going to calls with him as a kid, just standing around, watching and I loved it.”

Campbell, who picked up the unlikely nickname of Tiny from an old firefighter, grew up on Stellar Street and did his first bit of firefighting for the department of lands and forests.

“There was a fire in the woods up back of where Juniper Street is today and they got a bunch of kids to help put it out. They paid us, too, not much, but they paid us. Imagine doing that today?”

In those days fire call boxes were located all over town and the fire horn was on top of the old Stellarton high school. 

“If somebody had a fire they called the police department, if they had a phone, or they ran out to the nearest call box and pulled the alarm. It was still like that when I joined. There were certain tones to different alarms to let you know where the fire was and the fire department was below the town hall. I can remember somebody would call me and then my wife would have to call another five firefighters to get everyone out.”

Campbell got his foot in the door when some younger people were needed for nighttime fires. A firefighter’s gear in those days was limited to a long water-resistant coat that did not keep out heat and a pair of heavy rubber boots.

“The gear has changed a lot over the years, the gear and the firefighting equipment and the training, too,” he said.

Campbell looked forward to a time when he’d get the chance to drive one of the trucks.

“The older fellows drove the trucks so it didn’t happen right away but as they retired I got to drive. Driving and manning the pumps is what I like best.”

Campbell drove to one of the town’s most memorable fires when several Foord Street buildings were lost in the late 1980s.  

“It was January, minus 20 C, and the call came in about 6 p.m. The fire was in the old Salvation Army building where the Royal Bank is today. A gentleman who sold barbershop supplies was using it for storage and there were apartments above. It caught Hayman’s Hardware and a house in the back and we lost them all.”

Campbell had been on the truck operating the pumps for an hour when propane tanks inside the old building exploded.

“The explosion blew me off the truck but the chief caught me before I hit the ground. My brothers were out front and it blew them to the ground and it pushed back a couple of other fellows, too. None of us were hurt but the fire really took off then. We had to move the truck back and take the fellows away from the front of the building because there was no stopping it. We didn’t know what else was inside.”

The propane explosion surprised the firefighters but Campbell knew when he arrived it would be a tough fight.

“I’d done plumbing work with my grandfather in that building so I’d been up in the attic. I’d seen the walls were insulated with shredded newspapers, not what you want in a fire.”

Campbell pointed out today a thermo-imaging camera might well have warned firefighters of the possibility of a flash-over. He also remembers that night was the first time the New Glasgow fire department used its new ladder truck.

House fires and flue fires used to be much more common.

“The fire prevention programs we had in the schools really increased awareness of the dangers. Between smoke detectors and education on the importance of keeping flues clean we’ve come a long way.”

But Campbell can also rhyme off a list of older buildings that could potentially result in dangerous blazes. 

“Old buildings with lots of renovations, false ceilings, those are the things that worry you. Buildings where drugs may be growing are another issue.”

Sometimes there is also a bit of luck involved in firefighting, as in the case of a brush fire that broke out between the soccer fields and Valley Woods a few years ago.

“When I got to the station I was going to take a truck with 500 gallons of water but the truck wouldn’t start so I took another truck, a truck with 800 gallons. That fire moved so fast we’d have been in trouble without the 800 gallons at the start.”

Being a fire department member is not all about fighting fires as Campbell instructs at a local fire school and takes part in fundraising and community activities.

“We’re pretty well known for our pancake breakfast and our Christmas Eve parade. The parade started when one of the firefighters knew a little boy on MacKay Street who was quite sick and decided Santa would visit him on a fire truck. It has been going ever since.”