When fire fighters in British Columbia arrive at the scene of a fire, their main goal is getting every person and animal out safely and swiftly. For British Columbia Professional Fire Fighters Association (BCPFFA) president Gord Ditchburn, this means prioritizing public safety while simultaneously respecting the wellbeing of every worker involved in a rescue.
“Any building can be rebuilt. Public safety is number one,” says Ditchburn. “And as a captain, I won’t send a fire fighter into a burning building if I know there’s no one inside. We all need to go home at the end of the day.”
In 1997, Ditchburn was hired by the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services after a rigorous testing process, and he now holds the title of captain. Previously, he served as Local 18 president, along with BCPFFA vice-president, executive vice-president, and secretary-treasurer. Recently, he was acclaimed for his second term as BCPFFA president at the 2018 convention in Penticton.
Although Ditchburn’s career trajectory was already in motion, a specific time in his life made a deep impact on him: in 2004, he and his wife lost a child. Without hesitation, fire fighters from all over B.C. rallied around his family; they dropped off food, cut the lawn, and came for frequent visits, among other acts of kindness. For Ditchburn, this experience sparked a heightened desire to return the support of his colleagues. “They helped us get through a very difficult time and still help us today. I began to give more of my energy and effort,” he recalls. “Whether I would be here today in this position or not, I don’t know—but that’s what spurred me on. It’s that unshakable bond that fire fighters have. We support each other through thick and thin, and always have each other’s backs.”
Today, the BCPFFA exists to represent members and their rights, but another key component is its charitable arm called the Burn Fund. Events and initiatives such as Bright Nights in Stanley Park, Hometown Heroes Lottery, and the Hall of Flame Calendar help the association raise the money needed to run its important community services and programs. However, one of the association’s most impressive endeavours may be its building. A piece of property on Main Street in Vancouver was initially secured through a partnership with the city and province; when B.C. fire fighters stepped up to contribute $1.5 million of their own money to support the build, it inspired even further generous donations from outside contributors. In March 2016, the contemporary three-storey structure opened its doors.
While the location is currently home to BCPFFA’s offices, it also houses the Burn Fund Centre on the entire second floor. This section is comprised of eight hotel-like suites that provide a home away from home for burn or trauma patients undergoing treatment, or for their family members, to stay—free of charge. Outside each suite is a plaque crediting the B.C. fire department that funded it. A stocked communal kitchen, office space, and lounge (complete with toys and books) adds a personal touch. According to Ditchburn, having these accommodations available can make a huge difference. “Trying to find an affordable hotel is challenging. It is especially daunting if the person who is injured is the breadwinner, or if it’s a child and all your energy is focused on their wellbeing,” he says as he tours around the space. “When you’re not paying for a hotel, you can stay longer. There’s no longer the financial burden, which is key because not only are you dealing with the grief of a loved one who is injured or worse, you don’t have to worry about making arrangements—you just go.”
The centre is the only one of its kind in Canada and is usually at 90 per cent capacity. Ditchburn says the need for these accommodations is growing; unfortunately, during the winter months, BCPFFA sees an increase in fires reported. Chimney and furnace fires are common, but it is often also a simple action—a blanket too close to a space heater, a candle placed near something flammable, or a socket overloaded with plugs—that can be the cause of a fire that spreads.
“A lot of prevention is about slowing down, being more careful, and watching your little ones. We also have people living outside, and they’re trying to stay warm, too,” he says. “We encourage everyone, if you think you have an issue—however small—just call 911. We are here to serve. The fire department will always come.”
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