STONEY NAKODA – The last time Colten Wildman spoke to the Outlook, he was the only firefighter on the Nakoda Fire Department.
It was March 2019 and the Stoney Nakoda-born firefighter was just about to return from time off due to an injury when he got the call.
“The fire chief had resigned their position and I was called back in saying basically if they wanted the fire department to keep going, [someone] had to keep working,” the 30-year-old firefighter explained.
“So I would come in every day and respond to calls – whatever it was.”
Already an underfunded department on the Nation, and one that technically was only open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., the one-man team continued responding to all emergency services calls day and night.
Covering a Nation of 4,000 to 5,000 residents that almost matches the size of the city of Calgary, the Morley reserve within Stoney Nakoda spans to the Cochrane town limits to Highway 1X to Richards Road, north of Highway 1A located off Highway 40, to Dixon Hill Road, a rural road on the furthest southeast point, along with Rabbit Lake, a detached portion of the Nation with access from Highway 40 on the way to Waiparous.
Whether it was medical calls, motor vehicle accidents, grass fires, structure fires – the Nation’s only firefighter was there.
“It’s a night and day difference now,” Wildman said, sitting in the Nakoda Fire department hall more than a year and a half after the unexpected departure of the fire chief.
“Like I said, I was just here by myself and you know, I didn’t know too much on the administrative side and operating a fire service alone was tough.
“Once Mike [Crawford] was brought in, he encouraged us and supported us to grow and I think we made such a huge jump from where it was, to where we are, in such a short amount of time – a big thanks of that is to Mike and the support he brought us.”
Sitting quietly across the table with a humble smile, Nation Director of Emergency Services Mike Crawford thanked Wildman for the compliment.
Joining the crew last summer, Crawford brought more than 30 years of firefighting experience as a previous member of the Calgary fire department, along with a background in emergency management.
“We are building capacity,” Crawford explained.
“The short-term goal is to build a full-time fire department. Our call volume certainly warrants it.”
As someone who previously volunteered in neighbouring municipalities, Crawford gave the example of Cochrane, noting when the community got to 800 service calls a year, the Town started progressing towards being a full-time fire department.
“We are at that stage now and our call volume and the seriousness of the calls – the fires, the medical calls – certainly dictates we are at that point,” he said.
Averaging between 60 to 70 calls a month, the need for in-house emergency services in Stoney Nakoda has always been there. But in the past, the funding and manpower have not.
In April 2019, the then acting Tribal Administrator and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) confirmed the fire chief had unexpectedly departed and there was only one firefighter on call.
In an email from the Nakoda Fire Chief obtained by the Outlook, Jeff Beddome said he resigned from his position to pursue other opportunities. On March 15, 2019, Boddome wrote the fire department was non-operational due to staffing effective immediately.
Citing a lack of funding, the CFO noted neighbouring municipalities were on call to respond to Nation emergencies.
“The fire department is underfunded by Indigenous Services Canada, but we have good relationships with our neighbouring counties, so I think we’re probably covered,” Ken Christensen said at the time.
With one firefighter, and implementing a short-term solution of partnering with the Nation’s public works department to assist with calls – the department continued to rely on help from mutual aid partners including Cochrane Fire Department, Exshaw Fire Rescue, Ghost River Fire Department and Jamieson Road Fire Department. But most departments are more than a 20-minute drive from the townsite with the closest fire department made up of on-call volunteers.
Nation residents began calling for long-term solutions.
“I have seen in the papers that Exshaw [and Cochrane] fire departments are still willing to come out to help, but it takes them longer to get here," Stoney Nakoda elder Tina Fox said to the Outlook last year.
"I think our leadership and administration should look for funding instead of other fire departments … I think they have to look for funding so we can have our own department here and train more people to be firefighters and set up a decent program.”
At the time, the acting CFO said administration decided against implementing a volunteer option, saying it was an “administrative decision.”
A month later, the Nation received a new fire truck with funding from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC).
“I think it’s a long time coming and the Nation is equally as happy and excited, so that is good ... this is just one big step to a long-term solution,” Wildman told the Outlook on May 10, 2019, as public works employees were being trained on the new truck.
“We are trying to do the best we possibly can with what we’ve got and the support that we are getting from external sources has just been phenomenal as of lately and we hope to just keep gaining on that.”
By the end of that May, the CFO left his position and a posting also went up for Public Works manager.
“I think a big part of it was the mentality moving forward," Wildman said. "I think when the previous [person] was here, it didn’t leave – it wasn’t a positive environment.
“Ever since we had Mike Crawford here as our director, everything has been supportive and I think it drew in a lot of different people and a lot of encouragement into the program and department.
“It made us want to be here and encouraged us to work for the people and the Nation.”
With an interim captain and new emergency services director, Nation-born Wildman began taking the reins.
Initiating an educational program in the schools last fall, Wildman started teaching the next generation about fire safety while the recruitment for more firefighters began.
“When you have firefighters that are based here, we just care so much about the people and there is so much culture, which I think is huge,” Wildman said.
“I think we differ from other fire departments because we have such a strong cultural background here and our firefighters take a lot of pride in being from here and representing the Nation.”
To date, there is a team of nine with Crawford as the fire chief, Wildman as the captain along with on-call members Trylen Twoyoungmen, Zack Wildman, Josh Swampy, Billy Wildman, Japheth Rollinmud, Joseph Kaquitts and Nathan Holloway.
“It’s been really good,” Swampy said outside the fire department.
“Helping out the community means a lot.”
Wildman said it also helps to have members from the Nation.
“We know the backroads – we grew up here,” he said.
“Sometimes there is miscommunication when they tag us to a house and knowing the people helps tremendously. And in my experience, it’s where I’ve responded to calls before that I have that in the back of my mind. Because they are learning, they are instilling that in their own minds.”
The road system within the Nation is unique as the houses do not have addresses, but alarm numbers, and can be down a system of backroads spanning to the edges of neighbouring municipalities.
“I feel for some of the more serious calls when you are given the wrong pin location, or the wrong house location, and you are just going off knowledge and if it wasn’t for the knowledge or that background of community familiarization – you know a missed call could be critical,” Wildman said.
Currently, the department is working with the Calgary 911 dispatch centre to enhance geographical information system (GIS) to map the entire nation and in talks about putting the alarm numbers assigned to houses at the beginning of every driveway.
Crawford said he is proud of the progress the department has made to date, noting during the Thanksgiving long weekend there was a large grass fire near Ghost Lake where the Nakoda Fire Department was able to help.
“There were two helicopters working on it, but it was a large fire – there was Cochrane, Ghost River, Jameson Road, Exshaw and we assembled a team and were part of the team,” Crawford said.
“It was kind of a shining moment for the guys to be assigned a task and go do it – it builds our credibility.”
And while initiatives are in the works, and the crew continues to respond to motor vehicle accidents, grass fires, structure fires – the Nation, along with the rest of the world, is doing so amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stoney Nakoda has managed to keep numbers of active COVID-19 cases low since the virus first hit the province in mid-March with only 11 cases, zero active by the end of October, in Morley with the fire department pitching in to help any way they can.
“When COVID hit, the team was part of everything – from bagging to handing out food, to setting up the isolation centre, to cleaning out the high school, or helping the teachers when they moved back into the elementary and high school," Wildman said. "We had the boys helping out with everything they can.”
It is all part of giving back to the community.
“The feedback I’ve received from the community is great. The members, the Nation are super supportive of the fire department,” the captain said.
“We try do everything from helping out with moving stuff for them or delivering wild meat – the fire department is more than just a fire department, we are trying to be that public service type of deal I think the [crew] really tries to embrace that.”
The latest example was on Oct. 30 when the team got dressed up in costumes to hand out candy in a Trick-or-Treat drive-thru set up in the town centre.
“Mentality has been the biggest thing,” Wildman said.
“Because we actually get support from our administration and our leadership and more important, the people. And you know, we couldn’t have had that growth without the right people in charge and right now, I feel like we do and we are meeting and going above expectations.”