Firefighter Ron Suits knew something was wrong when he arrived at the scene of a barn fire west of Port Alberni and pulled his fire tender full of water to the site.
A lieutenant with the Sproat Lake Volunteer Fire Department, and career firefighter for nearly four decades, Suits, 69, was pulling up to nurse water to a fire engine on the side of the rural McCoy Lake Road, because the area is not served by fire hydrants.
“Ron got out of the truck and came around the back of the truck and told me there was a problem, he wasn’t feeling good,” Sproat Lake VFD Chief Mike Cann recalled. “He then sat on the tailboard of the truck and I grabbed a couple of first responder members that were close by.”
Four fire departments—Sproat Lake, Port Alberni, Cherry Creek and Beaver Creek—had all responded to the structure fire, where a barn full of hay was burning hot and fast. Smoke could be seen kilometres away, and it drew curious members of the public, snarling traffic on the winding road. The first responders, from Beaver Creek VFD, moved Suits to a seated position on the side of the road. Cann also called for an ambulance attendant to come up to where the tender was—the ambulance was having trouble getting through the traffic.
“He went into cardiac arrest,” said Cann, who was beside Suits. The first responders and paramedics performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for 30 minutes before rushing Suits to West Coast General Hospital. Unfortunately, he did not survive.
Although Cann is chief, for this fire he was third to arrive on scene, so he chose to supervise the water supply; Chris Wynans was incident commander. Cann said later he wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else but with Suits.
“As soon as he started having difficulties we had trained people on him—within a minute,” he recalled.
Suits’ wife Leanne is grateful.
“Circumstances being what they are, he was surrounded by people who knew what to do and they did it,” she said. “If he had any chance of surviving this, it was there. He had the best chance he could possibly have had. There’s a lot of consolation in that, because there’s no second-guessing.”
Suits spent 27 years with the Calgary fire department. He took early retirement so he and his wife Leanne, a nurse, could move to Vancouver Island. Their two children—Tyler, now 21 and a paramedic in Port McNeill, and Rebecca, now 19 and a university student—were toddlers, and Leanne’s job was portable.
“We decided…to slow things down and get out of the rat race,” Leanne said. “It was a good decision.”
Ron spent three years on the board of directors at the Dashwood Volunteer Fire Department in Qualicum Beach (2005–08). The family eventually moved to Port Alberni, to their property in Sproat Lake. “Our son was going to join the junior firefighter program,” Leanne said. “Ron brought Ty to his first practice. The guys were like ‘Oh!’ and they roped him in.”
Willingly, she added.
Ron served with SLVFD for four and a half years. A modest person, he quietly mentored younger firefighters, and he offered his opinion but never pushed it on anyone, Cann said.
Every Tuesday after practice, Suits would come into Cann’s office and sit down for a chat. Sometimes they didn’t even chat, but sat in companionable silence.
“He was always willing to do extra work in the department. I spent a lot of time talking to him about his time at the Calgary department.” Suits was a regular on the Saturday duty crews, who put in an extra four-hour training shift.
“You don’t know many people who retire from a career and then go back and do it for nothing,” Cann said. “It speaks volumes for his caring and willingness to help people.
“He certainly will be missed.”
“Ron didn’t have to be there, he chose to be there,” Leanne said. “He liked helping. That was who he was. He loved his career; he really enjoyed being able to be part of (the SLVFD). The guys on Sproat Lake Volunteer Fire Department are amazing.”
This is the second line of duty death that the Sproat Lake VFD has experienced in 18 months. Firefighter Carla Kulczycki died on Jan. 2, 2019 from work-related cancer.
Cann said it has hit his department hard. He doesn’t know of another line of duty death among firefighters at Sproat Lake, and now he has had two on his watch.
Cann said he was proud of all the Sproat Lake firefighters who kept on working to extinguish the barn fire, even after they knew what had happened to their colleague. “Fire doesn’t stop. It keeps going. I was pretty proud of our crew that they kept going.”
Cann had two Critical Incident Stress debriefing sessions with his firefighters: “The night of the fire…we brought all the crews in and left some crew from Beaver Creek to work with the excavator (at the barn site),” he said. “We were very fortunate Karen Fry, Nanaimo’s fire chief, drove all the way up.”
The second session was on Saturday with a representative from WorkSafe BC. Counselling has also been offered to members through WorkSafe BC as well as Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP).
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the fire department won’t be having a public line of duty death service like they did for Kulczycki. Firefighters from around Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland came to Port Alberni for a procession up Roger Street to the Alberni Athletic Hall, where the hall was filled to overflowing.
The family has a beautiful riverfront property, where Ron spent a lot of time working outdoors, and they will have a private ceremony there, Leanne Suits said.
The fire department will take part in the service.