For 32 years, Gordon Hikomak has been a member of the Kugluktuk Fire Department and for the past decade, he’s been its fire chief.
He’s still tethered to the portable emergency radio.
“I carry my radio all the time, 24/7,” he said. “I have my radio right beside my bed. I’d be lost if I don’t have it.”
He leads fire department practices and meetings each weekend. At age 50, it’s not as easy to do the heavy lifting, he admitted.
“Especially the breathing apparatus and that,” he said of donning the hefty gear.
He keeps in shape by refereeing and coaching hockey as well as other forms of exercise.
Hikomak joined the fire department in 1986 when one of his friends asked him to become a member. He remembers the use of rain jackets and hip waders for the first 10 years he was involved.
“That was our gear,” he said. “After we got brand new equipment, everybody was happy… we have big fire trucks, nice trucks now, and the breathing apparatus got way better than the old one.”
With improved equipment comes the need for upgrading skills, such as for pump operators. The fire department either sends volunteers to larger centres for training or sometimes trainers come to Kugluktuk to give lessons, Hikomak said.
He served under fire chiefs such as Ron Tologanak, Gerry Atatahak and Ted Dupont. He started out as a corporal, then was promoted to captain, deputy chief and then chief.
“I worked my way up,” he said.
The department currently has about 20 volunteers. When the numbers are lagging, calls for volunteers go out on the local radio station. Summer training with the pumper truck usually attracts the attention of new recruits as well, Hikomak said.
There’s always a possibility of tragic situations as a firefighter. Hikomak said he was haunted by the death of a child in a house fire in the early ’90s. He carried out the youngster’s lifeless body. He said counselling is available through the hamlet, the wellness centre or GN social workers to help firefighters cope when such circumstances arise.
As fire chief, Hikomak often reminds people, particularly students in schools, to have working fire extinguishers at home, make sure smoke detectors are installed and operational and have an evacuation plan for their homes.
Sometimes students come by the fire hall and they’ll get an orientation and put on the fire gear. That experience could spawn future generations of volunteers.
“Some students from high school say, ‘Oh, I want to be a fireman like you guys,'” Hikomak said.
That’s how Billy Hikomak, Gordon’s eldest son at age 25, felt as a teenager. He looked up to his father and joined the department when he was 16.
“He’s been helpful and teaching us a lot,” said Billy, whose younger brother has also become a volunteer firefighter.
Don LeBlanc, Kugluktuk’s senior administrative officer, said Gordon “has served his community well. He’s kept the fire department intact and he has good leadership skills.”
With so many years of service, Gordon said he’s openly discussed retirement a few times but his sons and his two brothers, who are also members of the fire department, have changed his mind more than once.
“‘Just stay,'” Hikomak recalled them imploring.
And he has.