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'You go and do your job and get out': Volunteer firefighter has been with N.B. department for 60 years

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For the first two decades of his volunteer fire service career, Tom Burley says they just wore everyday clothes as they ran into structure fires.

He says the Norton Fire Department in New Brunswick was outfitted with a rain jacket-like coat and rubber boots in the late 1980s.

He recalls those first uniforms cost about $159. Today, the firefighting gear – helmet, boots, pants and jacket – can cost more than $3,000.

This year, Burley is celebrating 60 years as a volunteer with the department, and can say with conviction the job has changed.

“When I first started, we might get like, 10 calls a year, and now we're up to 80 so far this year,” he said. “But when I started, we done fires. We didn't do motor vehicle accidents or anything like that. And now we do motor vehicle accidents, medical calls and a lot more put on the plate.”

Burley says it’s in his blood. His father was a firefighter. His son and daughter have just celebrated 30 and 25 years, respectively, as volunteer firefighters.

Volunteer firefighter Tom Burley circa 1980.

He says his son was one-month-old when he attended his first fire; the family were out one day when a call came in, and they all drove straight there.

Burley credits his wife, saying it’s a family commitment and her support has been unwavering.

“You’d be getting ready to go somewhere and the page goes out. The kids go behind, and you go to the calls,” he said.

Firefighting is a different kind of volunteerism – not always knowing what you’ll find as you run inside a burning building – but Burley and Norton Fire Chief Bill Palmer say they couldn’t imagine not doing it.

“You go into houses that the smoke’s so thick you can't see your partner beside you,” Burley said. “But you go and do your job and get out.”

Along with Burley’s milestone, the Norton Fire Department is celebrating 80 years in 2023, and Palmer has reached 35 years.

The Norton Fire Department in New Brunswick is celebrating 80 years of service. (Laura Brown/CTV Atlantic)

The duo hopes more young people take an interest in the service.

New Brunswick has about 5,000 firefighters and more than 90 per cent of them are volunteers.

In Norton, the calls and demand on volunteers has grown; they’re expecting they’ll reach more than 160 calls this year.

“In 1996, we started medical calls, and we were the first department, I believe, this side of Montreal, that signed a contract with a hospital,” said Palmer. “In the first five months of this year, we put 2,251 hours into this department. That’s 22 members who have done that.”

Norton Fire Chief Bill Palmer is pictured in Norton, N.B. (Laura Brown/CTV Atlantic)

He says they’re on track to seeing more volunteer hours worked than ever before – normally the entire year sees about 3,000 hours.

“And I always tell the new people who come on that work and family should be first. But it's like Tom said, it's not always the family that's first,” he said. “I mean, you're sitting down at Christmas dinner and the tone goes off. You're up and gone.”

The pair describe vehicle collisions where they couldn’t believe the driver walked away, and stubborn fires that took hours to knock down.

The Norton Fire Department in New Brunswick has responded to numerous emergencies over the decades.

Their favourite moments are the few times they get to meet someone they helped save after their recovery.

Neither are prepared to hang up their gear yet, although Burley says he doesn’t respond to medical calls anymore, nor does he run into structure fires.

He helps from outside the building, and directs traffic for motor vehicle accidents.

“I've just been waiting for them to kick me off,” he said when asked about his future with the department.

For more New Brunswick news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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