Inside the Yellowhead County fire department work experience program: A year of learning and growth
By Shaylyn ThorntonFeatures Wildland Alberta Canada wildfire season firefighter firefighter training wildfire
Annually, the Yellowhead County Fire Department (YCFD) brings on two recent fire school graduates to participate in YCFD's one-year work experience program (WEP), which offers the opportunity to gain fire fighting experience that will move them towards a career position.
Jan. 29, 2024, Yellowhead County, Alta. – Each year, recruitment for the Yellowhead County Fire Department (YCFD) work experience program (WEP) brings in a variety of applicants from across Canada. WEP firefighters spend one year living at the Station 10 firehall in Evansburg, Alta., working as casual firefighters. The program enhances and maintains a firefighter’s skills to provide an edge as they start their careers. They are mentored by experienced fire officers daily through both shift routines and training sessions. Typically, a WEP firefighter can expect to experience 550-600 emergency incident calls during the one-year program.
The successful applicants in 2022/23 were 26-year-old Gerard Mopas Santos from Markham, Ont., and 22-year-old Marco Lok from Woodstock, Ont. Both had graduated from fire school and were looking for an opportunity to use and enhance their skills when they learned about the WEP online and decided to apply.
“I figured it couldn’t hurt to apply,” said Lok, who noted that getting the position was “unexpected” but exciting. “It was very interesting moving out to Alberta. I had never travelled in Canada or Alberta, so it was a cool life experience, driving across Canada to get there.”
“It was a good move,” said Mopas of making Evansburg his temporary home. “I enjoy the area, it was a nice change of scenery and a different change of pace.”
When getting settled into their new home at the Evansburg Firehall, the WEP firefighters also met their new coworkers – although Lok and Mopas wouldn’t call them that. “YCFD is an amazing family that welcomes you in with open arms,” said Mopas. “I expected coworkers, but I got a new family.”
Lok echoed those sentiments, saying, “YCFD is amazing. I’m pretty shy, but they welcomed me in right away. They made sure the station felt like my home away from home. I have another family here.”
The WEP offers even more than a cool place to live and a great crew of people to work with. The professional opportunities that come with the position are “amazing.”
“The program offers real hands-on experience. School can only teach you so much, where things are explained but not experienced,” explained Lok. “Here you can learn from full-time guys and the paid-on-call guys and learn different ways to respond to calls. And to be able to live in the firehall for a year, not a lot of places do that. It was a very cool experience.”
“I learned insurmountable knowledge about firefighting,” Mopas said. “We were able to build on our firefighting skills, and living at the station really reminded me that firefighting isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle.”
Mopas saw joining the fire service as a way to serve his community and help others, noting that his military background as a combat engineer led him to want that same sort of brother/sister/family bond in his career. “And that’s what it’s like in fire, it’s a big family,” he said.
Lok recalled being a “typical little kid” with his dreams of being a firefighter after a fire department visited his elementary school classroom. He noted that his desire to be a firefighter really “clicked in at the end of high school.” In addition to getting to help people, Lok wanted a career where “Every day is a little different and unexpected. You can never know everything, you’re always learning. Firefighting is a never-ending education.”
Both received some of that “never-ending education” this past May and June, when they were truly tested during the 2023 Spring Disasters in Yellowhead County.
“It was definitely a devastating incident for the County, and it brought lots of learning opportunities,” said Lok. “I was learning different positions, learning from other departments and crews, and seeing the different ways of doing things. It was a long two months and an absolutely insane experience.”
Mopas certainly “didn’t expect” the wildfires when he joined the program, but he viewed the challenge as an opportunity. “It was a good experience to get exposed to different challenges,” he explained. “I’m trained in structural firefighting and had only a little bit of experience with wildland firefighting. I was able to expand on that while we were all trying our best to save property and life within the County.”
When asked if they would recommend YCFD’s WEP to other firefighters, both Lok and Mopas gave a resounding yes. “I absolutely 100 per cent recommend it. If you have the opportunity to take a year out of your life to learn more about firefighting, this is the best opportunity to do it,” said Mopas. “Every person I know that graduates fire school, I’ll be recommending a work experience program, and especially YCFD’s work experience program.”
“YCFD exposed me to almost every single aspect of fire service,” Mopas continued. “A rural department is a different beast, and being able to know how things work in a rural area adds to your toolbox as a firefighter. It’s a really unique opportunity.”
Lok also “definitely recommends” the YCFD WEP. “There are a lot of calls we go to that you wouldn’t see in cities, like high-speed motor vehicle collisions, so you gain experience in things like vehicle extraction that you might not get to elsewhere,” he said. “The County is so big, so you never know where you’re going to go. The people that make up the department and the department itself have so much experience and knowledge. There are so many people with different backgrounds, and I learned from every single one.”
As Mopas and Lok move on from the program, they pass the WEP torch onto 21-year-old Jesse Fisher who moved out to the Evansburg firehall from Edmonton and is already enjoying it. “It’s awesome,” he said. “Everyone is so helpful and accommodating.”
Like Lok, Fisher talked about how his “childhood dream” to be a superhero developed into wanting to be a firefighter. “I’m passionate about helping people and I like that every call is a different call,” Fisher said. “I’ve always held high expectations for myself.”
Fisher learned about the program from his grandparents who had seen it on social media, and soon the post appeared on his news feed as well. After applying, he was accepted as YCFD’s newest WEP firefighter. “It’s a great opportunity and steppingstone,” Fisher said. “Within a few months after fire school, your skills can dwindle. Being back on the tools helps a lot.”
Fisher has already been taking advantage of the new learning opportunities. “Everyone is helpful, showing me a lot of ways to do things. I’m getting a lot of new skills to add to my toolbelt,” Fisher said. “Every day has been different, and they’ve even asked me what I want to learn and what I want to get out of it.” In addition to the knowledge he’ll gain, Fisher said that he wants to “grow in every aspect” and “as a whole, be more confident” as he works towards a career firefighting position.
So, what’s next for these young men?
Fisher will continue to work in the YCFD WEP over the next year, and his main goal is to work for Edmonton Fire in the future.
Lok has begun looking for full-time positions in Ontario while he finishes out the program, hoping to continue his career closer to home.
For Mopas, what’s next is a new job with the City of Langley. “I couldn’t have done it without the work experience program. As soon as I added it to my resume, I started getting more calls,” he said. “The WEP was successful and I have so much gratitude to Yellowhead County and YCFD.”
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