Responding to the birthday alarm

Brockville firefighter Ryan Wells sits at the wheel while a fire department birthday convoy awaits the go-ahead in the city's north end on Thursday afternoon. (RONALD ZAJAC/The Recorder and Times) jpg, BT

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“This is usually the part where they ask us if there’s a fire on their street,” Brockville firefighter Ryan Wells says from the wheel of a city fire truck while he awaits the go-ahead for a special duty on a north-end street.

“When there’s a fire we’re not this slow.”

But in the age of COVID-19, firefighters have also been called upon for happier duties.

Since the pandemic forced people across the area and around the world to isolate with their family units, fire trucks being called in for birthday parades have become a familiar sight.

“They started doing the hospital,” said Fire Captain Travis Cauley, recalling the thank-you convoys in which emergency vehicles circled Brockville General Hospital to show appreciation for front-line health-care workers.

Since then, firefighters from both the city’s stations have been called upon repeatedly to celebrate birthdays, as children find themselves cooped up at home and unable to hold parties.

It’s been a different way for the local crews to interact with children, said Cauley. Before the pandemic, kids would often drop by the fire stations and the firefighters would show them around.

“We always welcome that, but not right now.”

The birthday calls have been picking up as the pandemic persists, he added.

He estimated the fire department now does two or three parades a week.

Cauley was only aware of one case in which a crew on birthday duty had to bail on that mission because of an emergency call.

On Thursday afternoon, one car, one aerial truck and one rescue pumper set out from the Laurier Boulevard station to celebrate the 11th birthday of Shaylyn Kiah, with a reporter tagging along in the back of one truck with a facemask and hand sanitizer.

While the full birthday parade usually involves lights and sirens, this one was confined to sirens only as Shaylyn’s mom, Chelsee Richard, has epilepsy.

Richard and her mom, Jodi Hutchins, started planning with the fire department last week. Hutchins said she had hoped to get city police in on the parade as well, but the police force has been busier with calls lately.

Thursday’s birthday convoy went off without a hitch, with Shaylyn and family members happily waving from the sidewalk.

From left, Chelsee Richard, Matt Kiah, Shaylyn Kiah, Shaylyn’s grandmother Jodi Hutchins and her aunt Jenn Dawson react as fire trucks give Shaylyn a birthday parade on Thursday afternoon. (RONALD ZAJAC/The Recorder and Times) jpg, BT

“She was so surprised. She’s still talking about it,” Richard said of her daughter shortly after the small parade.

“She misses her friends, that’s for sure.”

A shy Shaylyn confirmed in an interview she was pleased and surprised at this special birthday event.

Richard said the fire department was very helpful with organizing the birthday surprise.

“They were great to deal with,” she said.

The firefighters were particularly accommodating to turn the lights off because of worries they could trigger her epilepsy, she added.

While the fire trucks are always a hit with the children, Wells said the parades sometimes happen for older people as well.

In one case, he noted, a crew drove by to wish a happy birthday to a 67-year-old former paramedic who had to retire because of a work-related injury.

“It gives them a boost,” said Cauley.

“It’s fun for us, too,” he joked. “We like making noise.”