Town of Coaldale
Coaldale Fire Chief Andy Van Rijn will be officially retired from the Town of Coaldale’s emergency services by the end of the year.
After four decades on the job, 30 of those as fire chief, he will be making the transition to a whole new lifestyle.
He said it will be weird going to bed at night without a radio next to the bed ready to summon him to an emergency call.
Already this year the call volume for Coaldale is sitting at 315 with two months yet to go in the year. Last year, the department set a new call record at 342 and Van Rijn expects that number will be beaten again this year. “It just gets busier and busier. Every year we’re setting a new record.”
It’s that busy lifestyle, being on call 24-7, he will be leaving behind but he will be taking with him decades of memories, both good and not so good.
He could have retired in 2011 but said he was still enjoying his job and was not quite ready to let go. He knew the day would come, sooner rather than later, when he would be ready to respond to his final emergency call. He joked he just didn’t want to go from his job to living at the Sunny South Lodge.
He also wanted to make sure he was debt free, so he could really enjoy his retirement years. Now at the age of 63 he will join his wife Raylene, who retired from Kate Andrews High School in June, in a new chapter of their life together.
Married 42 years, Van Rijn said his wife has sacrificed so much for his career. She’s even gotten to the point where she doesn’t want to invite anyone over for dinner because he might have to leave in the middle of the meal. “She has been my right hand person my whole career, I couldn’t have done it without her.”
He said she knew as much about burning bylaws and fire rules as he did and often was called upon to answer questions when they received calls at home and he was already out on a call.
“She was as invested in my career as I was.”
He said for 30 years he was on call every third week for the ambulance and his family had to work around his schedule if they wanted to plan any outings or activities. There is no such thing as a nine to five job in emergency services.
“It’s seven days a week, 24 hours a day. If I’m in Coaldale, I’m on call.”
Over the years he said the most rewarding part of his job has been the opportunity to help people. Even when the call is just to help a senior whose smoke detector needs new batteries and they can’t reach it to change them. He was glad to go change batteries or even install a smoke detector for someone who couldn’t do it on their own. The harder calls have never been easy to forget, the fatalities that leave so many people suffering in their wake including loved ones and emergency services personnel.
When emergency services responds to a call that ends in a fatality it takes time for everyone to process their emotions. Whether its emergency services personnel who responded or the friends and family left to deal with the aftermath, Van Rijn has spent hours talking through the emotions, the questions and the disbelief with those left behind. “You don’t forget that stuff.”
Over time he is able to process it but it is never truly forgotten. He still recalls the memories when he drives by a home, a stretch of highway or a rural site that was once an emergency scene. For him, the hardest have always been fatalities involving children because they are truly innocent and didn’t have a choice in what happened to them.
When he talks about how to deal with these situations with emergency personnel he reminds them they are there to help and whether they responded or not the person would still be dead. It’s up to them to help in any way they can in an emergency situation.
“We’re just normal people responding to an abnormal situation.”
“We’re only human, we care.”
Van Rijn has called Coaldale his home his whole life, admits he is attached to the people and has been honoured to serve as fire chief. Responding to calls where you know the people involved is never easy but help is needed and emergency services is there to handle any situation. “You can’t go on these calls and not bring your emotions.”
For him, the lives saved help him to deal with the emotions tied to the ones who couldn’t be saved.
Over the years there have been a fair share of fun calls, the typical cat rescues from tall trees, a dog rescue after it fell through the ice, a cat with its head stuck in a fence, a kid with his hand caught in a pop machine and even a girl who slipped and got her foot stuck in a toilet.
He said he loves giving Kindergarten classes a tour of the fire hall, something that happens on an annual basis. Prevention is critical to emergency services and Van Rijn is delighted when children come up to him and recall what they learned from him on their tour.
He uses his own family tragedies on the job, losing a brother when he failed to wear his seat belt and was thrown from his vehicle in a collision, to encourage others to always wear their seatbelt.
Over the years his role with emergency services has changed along with the service. “When I first started all we did was fight fires.”
Over the last four decades the job has expanded ten-fold and often when people don’t know who to call, they call emergency services.
He started out as a firefighter on Oct. 1, 1975, then served as deputy chief and 10 years to the day after he started he became fire chief. He came to emergency services after being called into duty as an ambulance driver.
Bill Holmes, mayor of Coaldale in 1975, called Van Rijn because it was a Saturday and the town needed someone to drive the ambulance to Calgary. He was the only one they could find with the proper licence, because he had driven school bus. At 23 years old, Van Rijn found himself behind the wheel, lights and siren, all the way to Calgary. He was hooked and the rest is history. He showed up two days later for the Monday night practice and signed up.
His brother Joe had been trying for years to get him to sign on with the department. Joe, who served 20 years with emergency services and ultimately paid the price for that service with his life, died as a result of cancer brought on by exposure to chemicals released during burning.
Van Rijn understands the sacrifices made by firefighters and their families in service to the community. He said there is no such thing as an ex-firefighter, but there are retired firefighters and he is looking forward to it. He will not be staying on with the department as a firefighter because he feels it wouldn’t be fair to the new fire chief. “Maybe it’s time for a change.”
And he is looking forward to enjoying his retirement years. “I owe my family some time.”
As with any demanding career, always on the verge of being interrupted by an emergency call, Van Rijn knows it will not be easy to walk away. Van Rijn said he needs to know what it means to live life like a normal person, a life uninterrupted by emergency calls.
He said if he has any regrets it is losing the ambulance service in Coaldale. When Alberta Health Services took over the service he lost eight staff and ended up having to hire a deputy chief to ensure the fire hall was always covered.
Always a strong advocate for emergency services, he has not been afraid to speak out when change was needed. He has appreciated the support for emergency services in Coaldale that has come from town councils, local businesses and residents. He trusts them and said he appreciates the support of all the town councils over the years. “I’m proud to be a town employee.”
He also had praise for the businesses who were willing to let their staff go at a moment’s notice to answer emergency calls.
Coaldale’s emergency services is volunteer-based, Van Rijn and Deputy Fire Chief Gary Gettman are the only full-time staff and after their regular work day ends they are part of the 35-member volunteer emergency crew.
The Town of Coaldale and Coaldale and District Emergency Services are compiling a book of well wishes to be presented to Van Rjin at his retirement. Local residents, friends and colleagues are invited to share their stories, anecdotes and memories of his service.
These can be submitted in writing to the Town Office, by mail to 1920-17 Street, Coaldale, T1M 1M1 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please have your submissions in by Nov. 25.