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Powassan Fire Chief celebrates 50 years as firefighter

By Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget   

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Apr. 16, 2024, Powassan, Ont. – It’s a momentous occasion for Powassan fire chief Bill Cox as he celebrates 50 years of firefighting service.

Cox was 25 when he joined the volunteer brigade in September 1974.

Cox’s dad, Mickey, was also a firefighter during the 1950s and was also fire chief of the small community.

Cox recalls “hanging out at the fire department” as a young boy, adding because times were different back then, “you got to see all the fires”.


Cox says he “most definitely got involved in firefighting” because of his father.

There was no monetary reason to join the fire service since in many small communities, including Powassan, as the firefighters were volunteers.

Cox says you got involved “for the betterment of the community”.

When his dad was fire chief, neither he nor the other volunteers got paid, not even a stipend.

It’s different nowadays where the volunteers receive a small stipend and as fire chief, Cox is the only regular paid employee.

By trade Cox was a plumber and petroleum mechanic and worked for an Imperial Oil agent when he became a volunteer firefighter.

And as a firefighter, he’s seen many changes and evolutions take place at the local fire station.

Unlike today where the fire department has a full fleet of vehicles, the Powassan Fire Department consisted of one 1950 fire truck when Cox signed up, and it’’s the same vehicle his dad rode many years earlier.

During Cox’s early days as a firefighter, the volunteers still rode outside the truck on the back tailboard, just like in the movies.

Cox says firefighting equipment has become more sophisticated over the decades, but notes during his early years fires weren’t as toxic because unlike in the past, interior furnishings today are made from more combustible materials.

A major change in fire emergency alertness was the introduction of 911.

However, when Cox was a volunteer, there was no 911.

Back then, and also during his dad’s tenure with the department, the ‘911’ was a siren alerting everyone about fires.

The siren could be heard across the community, and once it was activated and the address was known, people with that information, including phone operators, began calling the volunteers to head to the station for their gear and get to the fire.

Cox says the arrival of pagers made contacting the volunteers easier and cell phones and 911 have simplified the process even further.

Cox took on the role of deputy fire chief during the 1990s and became fire chief in 2000.

The next year Powassan amalgamated with Trout Creek and South Himsworth which gave the newly created Municipality of Powassan three fire stations.

Cox says merging the three fire stations created a larger territory to cover, and since much of the area was rural, there were no fire hydrants.

“That was a challenging period because now we need tankers to get water out of creeks,” Cox recalled. “So we needed different equipment to make it all work”.

After a while the South Himsworth station was dissolved, but the coverage area remained the same, and today that area continues to be covered by the fire houses in Trout Creek and Powassan.

Today the combined equipment at both stations includes two large pumpers, an aerial ladder truck the firefighters nicknamed ‘Big Red’ because of its 100 foot ladder, two tankers, a rescue unit, a mini pumper used to fight grass fires and a forestry truck.

During the amalgamation period, despite becoming fire chief, Cox received a stipend just like the other volunteers.

It wasn’t until 2017 when he retired from the petroleum industry that he became a paid fire chief.

“The department needed someone here more frequently,” Cox said. “I said I would take the job if it was three days a week.”

Cox said all parties agreed, but he notes despite being on the payroll for part of the week, he and the volunteer firefighters are always on call 24-7.

“It’s always 24 hours a day, and you can’t shut it down,” he said.

The Powassan Fire Department has worked out of several fire stations during its history, but none of those previous homes comes remotely close to what it has today.

The 8,000 square foot facility built in 2017 has three bays, easily accommodates a 34-foot long pumper and has plenty of space between all the vehicles.

Cox was one of the key individuals to bring the new station to life.

The $1.3 million state-of-the-art facility was financed by the municipality because no grants were available.

It has a large training room where the 27 volunteers watch their training videos and do their written work.

There are also two offices and a bunker gear area.

“The volunteers were ecstatic,” Cox said. “It’s a showcase compared to what we had.”

In fact several area fire departments looking at building new fire stations have visited Powassan to use the local fire house as a template for their new stations.

Cox has seen many changes as a firefighter, and when asked which of those changes has had the most impact, his answer is fire prevention because it’s helped to reduce fires.

“It’s one of the best evolutions,” he said.

“And we go to both schools and give the kids information about fire prevention. They take it home and get their parents’ attention. We also talk to seniors about fire prevention initiatives like extension cords and cooking on stoves.”

Cox has worked with many volunteers over the decades.

One of them is Powassan Mayor Peter McIssac who spent seven years as a volunteer firefighter.

“During that time Bill went from captain to chief,” McIsaac said.

“Bill made everyone better at their job as a firefighter. He always knew what to do, no matter what the situation was. He was the reassuring voice of a great leader.”

As Mayor, McIssac said, “I know a lot goes into running a fire department. Bill does an outstanding job for our entire community. He has the respect of the men and women who volunteer and the entire council. Our entire community appreciates everything Bill Cox does and has done for the past 50 years.”

At 75, Cox hasn’t decided on an exact retirement date yet, but says it’s close.

“It’s going to be this year,” he said. “I want others to have their opportunity. And when I leave, I leave. I won’t micro manage.  My replacement should have the chance to do it their way. But I will come back for coffee.”

The fire chief will also likely remain involved with the organization Firefighters Without Borders.

His brother Ken Cox is a retired captain with the Brampton Fire Department.

He’s been instrumental in getting free surplus fire fighting equipment from various station houses across Southern Ontario to Powassan where Bill Cox then distributes that equipment to neighbouring fire departments.

“We’ve picked up generators, water pumps, extrication equipment, tools and clothing,” Cox said. “Many small fire departments have no budget and limited equipment. There is still plenty of use in what we collect, and this program has saved many departments tens of thousands of dollars.”

Cox says once he hangs up his fire chief’s hat for good, he has plenty of hobbies to fill those days when he’s not responding to a fire.

“But I’ll miss it, especially when you hear the sirens.”

Looking back at his 50 years, Cox says it’s been a personally rewarding experience because he believes he’s “made a contribution to keeping the community safe”.

A Meet and Greet is planned for Cox, and among the people invited to the event are area fire chiefs, firefighters from surrounding departments, police, paramedics, the riding MP and MPP as well as present and past Powassan firefighters.

The public is also invited.

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