Al Mann is a person who has spent more than half of his life as a firefighter.
But after 43 years he will be hanging up his helmet for the final time on May 22.
The sixty-five-year-old is currently the interim Chief of Alnwick/Haldimand Township Fire Department, but he has held many positions over the years since starting as a volunteer firefighter with the Baltimore Fire Department in May, 1975.
In October, 1982 he started his full-time career with the Cobourg Fire Department, but still stayed on with Baltimore which is where he has resided his entire career with his family.
Working up the ranks to Captain, he became Chief of the Cobourg Fire Department in 1996.
In 2013, Mann retired from the Cobourg Fire Department, but his heart was still in the firefighting service and he held several interim positions with various departments including Deep River in the Fall of 2013 while their department was going through a hiring process. In February 2014 Mann was interim Chief with the Port Hope Fire Department for nine months finishing up at the end of 2015.
Finally he ended up with the Alnwick/Haldimand Township Fire Department as the interim Chief on April 1, 2016 for what he thought would be nine months, but has been the interim Chief of the department for two years.
Working as both a volunteer (part-time) firefighter and as a full-time firefighter along with being Chief of both full-time and part-time firefighters Mann adamantly states there is no difference professionally between the two designations.
“The public expects the same level of service. Whether you’re full-time or volunteer. When they are calling for help whether it’s a fire or medical emergency, or any of the other services that we typically provide, they just know that you’re there to do a job.”
“You’ll sometimes hear firefighters say, “I’m a professional” referring to the fact they are full-time. But professionalism in the fire service has got nothing to do with full-time.”
“It’s about the job you do, you’re training, they way you present yourself and the way you serve your community. It’s got nothing to do with how much money you make.”
Over the course of over four decades in firefighting, Mann states there has been huge changes to the service.
“When I started you trained to the basics, because that’s all we really got when I started.”
“Then the fire service got into auto extrication, combined space rescue and a number of other areas including medical calls.
“There are so many more standards now. In those days you simply trained the best you could. You gathered training information on wherever you could get it and that was all that was really expected.”
“Now there are so many standards we have to adhere too. Not only by the Ministry of Labour and the Provincial Government, but we’re also held accountable by the people we serve and they expect us to be well trained.”
Working the last several years for departments who are part-time or volunteer, Mann adamantly states, they are not doing it for the money.
“You’re doing it to serve your community.”
“But you’re held to the same standards as the full-time career firefighters in large city departments.”
But because both full-time and part-time/volunteers are trained to the same provincial standard, it sometimes makes it tough for volunteers to find the time..
“A volunteer firefighter only has so much time to give because they have their full time job and family commitments.”
Which makes it difficult to recruit volunteers.
As with any veteran firefighter, Mann has witnessed the tragedies and triumphs of the profession.
“From a fire perspective is the Horizon Plastics fire in April 2005 in Cobourg that caused an estimated $10 million in damage is the largest fire.”
At the time of the fire, Mann was the Chief of the Cobourg Fire Department.
“But there is lots of others, highway incidents where you go out onto the highway and you don’t know what you’re going to find when you get there. Any type of call where there is children involved obviously hits you hard. But there is lots of good calls too that stand out and you’ve made a difference in somebody’s life. I think those are the ones that you especially hold near and dear to your heart.”
Mann said the firefighting community is a tight community and that is what he’ll miss the most.
“Obviously the people that you meet and the people you’re involved with.”
“You hear about team mates having your back. Well the fire service is no different. Firefighters have each others back. I think that’s probably the biggest thing that anybody misses, that team environment that you’re apart of everyday.”
Whether it’s a full-time or volunteer department, personalities always come into play around the stations.
“But what’s important and I’ve seen it in every department I’ve been exposed too, once that alarm goes off, all of those personalities, conflicts, differences go away.”
“Once your actively engaged in a incident, it is very much a team.”
For the future of volunteer firefighting in Northumberland County, Mann said it could be a difficult task for a number of reasons.
“We are exposed to the growth of the GTA. People coming out of the city who have experienced nothing but full-time come out here expecting the same level of service. With the new standards that are being proposed right now by the Province, it’s going to get even tougher because moving forward firefighters will be required to be certified.”
“So if an individual can’t make that grade or doesn’t have the time to commit to be certified, then it’s going to make it hard on departments to maintain staffing levels.”
Being a Chief of some rural areas, Mann said a tragedy like what happened on April 6, when 16 members of a hockey team were killed near Humboldt, Saskatchewan would be devastating for emergency services.
“It would be overwhelming.”
“It’s obvious a rural department isn’t going to be on scene as fast as a full-time city department.”
“The first arriving units, you might have three or four firefighters on board and in a case like Humboldt it’s not even close to the resources that you’re going to need.”
“Where do you start and how do you deal with it?”
“I think you’re training kicks in and you just go in to a autopilot mode and do what you’re trained to do.”
Along with the families, friends and the community it will take a long time to recover.
“Whether a fighter is full-time or volunteer first and foremost they are a human being.”
“It’s going to have a huge effect, not only the firefighters but all the first responders. Just even the general public that arrived on scene. The people who were dealing hands on at that scene are going to need help.”
“I hope and I trust the firefighters, the police and the paramedics aren’t forgotten and offered the help they need.”
“As firefighters we witness things that nobody should have to witness and it stays with you for years – a lifetime.”
As for his retirement plans, Mann said he has lots of interests.
Spending time with his family, especially his grandson is at the top of the list.
But he’s also looking forward to fishing, hunting and cruising around on his motorcycle on the sunny summer evenings.