by Sophie Kuijper Dickson
Feb. 5, 2024
When Lee Laframboise was a child growing up on Shawville’s Willow Street, he lived just a few doors down from Bill Black, then firefighter with the Shawville-Clarendon Fire Department.
He would watch in awe as Black would speed down the street in his own car, decked out with all sorts of make-shift sirens, on his way to the station to respond to a call.
Laframboise never imagined he would join that very fire department, let alone lead it as fire chief for a quarter of a century, but that is exactly what he did.
“I’ve been on call since ‘91,” he laughed, seated in the second-floor meeting room of the Shawville-Clarendon Fire Department on a quiet Thursday afternoon.
“I get up in the morning, I get dressed, I put my pager on. It gets to be a way of life.”
The firehall was empty, its 26 volunteer firefighters tied up in their regular lives, and so Laframboise was taking the opportunity to do some tidying of a station that, to an untrained eye, seemed already to be spotless.
The station’s five fire trucks were lined up, ready to be taken out on their next call. The floor was clean. Clutter was non-existent.
In the locker room, 27 cubbies, each labeled with a firefighter’s last name and assigned number, housed 27 pairs of protective gear.
Pant legs sat piled into boots, ready and waiting so that when the time came, the regular residents of Shawville and Clarendon could leap into them and transform themselves into the firefighters they had signed up to be.
Laframboise is proud of the speed at which his firemen respond to a call, and remembers the days when he was one of them, often the first to the station when the call went out.
He said these days, most of the firemen, including his own son Ryan, are already leaving the station in the trucks by the time he gets there.
“I have enough guys that can do that, because I’m old. That’s why. I use the old excuse,” Laframboise said, earnestly.
While it was the adrenaline rush and the glamour of the job that initially seduced him into volunteering for the department all of those years ago, his 25 years as chief have offered him a more intimate understanding of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy and attention to detail needed to keep a fire department going.
Laframboise describes the job of chief as governed by a series of less glamorous tasks that make daily operations of the department possible, like checking and rechecking systems and keeping equipment updated, including Shawville’s one hundred or so fire hydrants which he ensures are inspected annually.
But his attention to detail extends beyond what equipment maintenance demands to an attunement to the personalities that make up his team.
“I’m not going to say I’m a good chief, but you do have to wear two hats,” Laframboise said, referring to the dual roles he plays as both friend and boss of the men who make up the department.
“You’ve got to make them feel important and make the job worthwhile,” he said, adding that this requires a bit of a balancing act.
Laframboise said that even though pay for what is still referred to as a ‘volunteer’ position has improved since he started, training and certification demands have made recruiting new firefighters to the department more challenging.
While the standards for firefighters are higher than they used to be, Laframboise does not shy away from enforcing them, both because it is the law in Quebec, and because he cares that his fire department does well.
At the same time, he is keenly aware that he is leading a team of firefighters at a time when rural departments are struggling to bring in volunteers, often joining forces with neighbouring departments to stay alive.
Laframboise knows that being too strict or stern with the men that make up his team might push them away, and so he does what he can to walk a fine line.
“Here’s an example,” he said, reaching to grab a crumpled up Freezie wrapper that had been left on a table in the meeting room.
“I buy them Freezies because I know they like them, but they’ll get crap for this,” he insisted, waving the tube of plastic in the air before throwing the wrapper in the trash.
“I do baby them a lot,” Laframboise admitted. “But I get paid to be here.”
‘Like another father’
Larry Stevens has been deputy chief under Laframboise’s leadership for over 10 years, and a good friend of his for much longer.
“The Shawville-Clarendon Fire Department is a pretty good fire department, and it’s a lot because of his leadership,” Stevens said.
He believes the success of Laframboise’s leadership is largely to do with his ability to motivate the team.
“Motivation comes in a whole bunch of different ways. Sometimes it’s being a little cross, sometimes it’s a pat on the back,” Stevens said.
“Every now and then he can get a little bit cross if it’s not going how he wants, but he has a level of performance he’d like and pushes hard for that level. I think that’s about the biggest compliment I could give him.”
“Twenty-six firemen . . . do you know how many personalities that is?” Vaughan Bastien, one of two captains with the department laughed, crediting Laframboise for his ability to both support the firefighters and push them to meet his standards.
“Lee has a big heart. He’s like another father,” Bastien said.
Bill Black’s trace
While Laframboise would not describe his role as fatherly, he did allude to an impulse he has to protect the younger recruits on the team from having to see serious injuries at car wrecks, which he knows from experience can haunt a responder for years afterwards.
“They don’t need to have that memory,” he said, adding that when he can’t protect them, he reminds them of what his predecessor Bill Black always told him.
“Don’t look at the person. Do the job you’ve got to do but don’t look at the person.”
Laframboise was recruited to the department in the days he owned and ran Bean’s Service Station on the highway.
The chief at the time, Roy Thoms, convinced him to sign up as a firefighter, which paid only $5 for a call.
Laframboise agreed but warned Thoms he would only respond to calls if he was not already serving a customer at Bean’s. His dedication to his customers quickly waned as he grew to love the thrill of responding to a call.
Thoms was replaced by Neil Sharpe, who led the department for two years from 1991 to 1993, at which point he was replaced by Bill Black, the firefighting neighbour from Laframboise’s childhood.
Laframboise credits Black with having taught him many things, including how to tie a bowline knot and how to help at a devastating fire or crash scene while staying collected.
But Laframboise said Black’s influence on his career was wider reaching than a simple lesson here or there.
Laframboise was the fireman standing right next to Black when he died of cardiac arrest responding to a brush fire at the Clarendon dump in May 1998. Black was only 51 years old.
“That’s probably why I became chief. I took the responsibility right then. Some other guy was freaking out. I said ‘Get your head together’,” Laframboise recalled.
Black’s original signature can still be found protected under a piece of plexiglass on the fire station’s chalkboard which was saved when the new fire hall was built in 2000.
“If Black was still living, he would still be chief. I wouldn’t care if he was 75.”
Laframboise and his deputy chiefs are all in their sixties, and he knows their days at the fire department will soon come to an end.
“There’s a good chance that I will retire and the deputy chiefs retire all at the same time,” Laframboise said.
He has started to reach out to a few firefighters he believes might be candidates for replacing him, but knows that finding the right fit requires a rare combination of dedication, organization and personality that is harder and harder to come by.
“For example, you need to have a few papers behind you to be chief,” he said. “We do have some that have the papers, but do they have the heart?”
For now, Laframboise leaves this question of future leadership unanswered, reassured by his confidence that the team he leads cares deeply about the work it does.
“I know they guys that are here want to be here. They have heart.”
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