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Answering the call: Meet Parkland County’s volunteer firefighters

WATCH ABOVE: They put their lives on the line to protect their community, and it’s not even their full time job. Here is part one of Quinn Ohler’s three-part special series on volunteer firefighters in Alberta.

EDMONTON – It was the middle of the night, on October 19, 2013, when Parkland County Fire Services got the call. An explosion rocked the community of Gainford, Alta.  after 13 train cars carrying oil and liquefied petroleum gas left the tracks. One year later, it’s a call firefighters will never forget.

“It felt like a long time ago, even though it felt like yesterday,” explained Jacob Walch, who had only been an on-call firefighter for eight months when the call came in.

“Halfway to the hall when they repeat the page you finally hear what came in, and you hear ‘train derailment.’

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READ MORE: Tanker train carrying oil and gas derails west of Edmonton

Walch was one of dozens of firefighters who helped during the 82-hour evacuation of residents. Most who responded from the Parkland County department were on-call volunteers.

They carry a pager voluntarily and can be called out at any time of day or night, 365 days a year.  They’re paid for the time they spend training, and responding to calls.

According to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, 80 per cent of firefighters across the province are volunteers. That number though could decrease as departments in Canada struggle to fill vacant positions within their ranks.

“Firefighters are trained to handle these things and we just get it done,” said Fire Chief Jim Phelan, adding all firefighters, volunteer or not, are trained to the same international standards.

It’s for that reason, Phelan says, that his men and women were ready for a call like the train derailment.

“At any one time we had as many as 50 volunteers there.”

WATCH: Raw aerial footage of Gainford train derailment

Some spent more than 20 hours at a time on site. The Fire Chief remembered having to tell several of them to go home and rest.

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Firefighter Walch said he was focused on protecting the community, and the environment. It’s a call he never thought he would have to answer when he first signed up to be a volunteer, but it showed him just how important the job can be.

“It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”

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