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Words: Barry Strader
Having grown up in a small, remote, rural community, Hugo Van Liere has been a volunteer firefighter his entire adult life.
“That’s just what we did when we turned 18,” he said. “We signed up.”
As a son of a volunteer firefighter, Van Liere grew up seeing the impact the local fire department can make in communities that are far away from the services most Albertans take for granted.
“I just saw what my dad did for the neighbours and sometimes I saw what happened when help couldn’t make it there in time."
Van Liere is now a Business & Agriculture relationship manager with ATB Financial in Coaldale, where he has been a member of the volunteer fire department for 10 years. He’s one of 35 members of a department that handled more than 400 calls last year—a total that increases year after year.
“We respond to a combination of calls,” said Van Liere. “We do medical first responses when both ambulances are on other calls. Sometimes we go with the ambulance or instead of them. We also take care of structural fires, grass fires, vehicle collisions, gas leaks. We do a bit of everything.”
Because he’s often visiting customers on their farms around Coaldale during the day, Van Liere isn’t usually on call during ‘bankers’ hours.’ That means he needs to be ready to respond to calls during the evening, in the middle of the night and on weekends. He also spends one or two nights a week in training sessions (volunteer firefighters get just as much training as their urban counterparts). Training combined with emergency calls mean the hours add up.
“That’s always a drain on my family,” he said. “You’re at a birthday party or you’re having dinner and you have to go. But there have been cases where I’ve gone to close relatives’ barn fire and that puts it in perspective. It might be your own family who needs help.”
Even if a victim in crisis is a complete stranger, just being able to respond is a special feeling for Van Liere.
“When you show up, especially when you’re first on scene, they focus on you. You’re their hope,” said Van Liere. “That’s rewarding regardless of whether you can help or not.”
Van Liere is one of several ATB team members who are volunteer firefighters. They get support through ATB’s Helping Hands program, which donated over $135,000 to team member causes. In all, ATBers volunteered over 25,000 hours of their time in 2015.
“We’re all regular people with regular jobs,” said Van Liere. “You’re trained to do your part and you work with a great team. But it is a big sacrifice. It’s a lot of hours.”