After 35 years, 15 ladder-thons, four chiefs and innumerable sacrifices, Manfred Bialon is retiring from Grand Forks Fire/Rescue (GFFR).
As second-in-command from 2001 until July 2019, Assistant Fire Chief Bialon helped modernize the department, shouldering efforts to bring in the Jaws of Life, and later a new fire truck. When the city flooded in May 2018, he was the one handling on-the-ground logistics. He was also a father who, like everyone else who wears the uniform, often served his community at the expense of his family life.
“It was tough,” he told the Gazette Tuesday, July 20, scarcely a week after he’d put in his papers. “I showed up and I worked hard … But, you miss the birthdays, the special events,” he admitted. “You miss all the appointments that you have, really.”
Now 64, the man holds in his memory a huge chunk of the department’s institutional history. But Bialon shared precious little about his own service. There were no “highlights” in terms of houses saved or rescues made.
“Those ‘highlights’ usually meant something horrible for other people. And I remember the stories. I could tell you every one of them.” Many end badly, he said.
The story of how he came to be a firefighter is ordinary enough — to hear him tell it, anyway. “It was the usual,” he laughed. “I knew people in the department and they said I should join up, so I looked into it a little more.”
What especially appealed to him was that, “they did so much in the community.”
So many years later, Bialon has added to that legacy in spades. In the 12 years they served together, Dep. Chief Rich Piché said, “I don’t remember him ever missing a department practice or a call, (to a fire or rescue) unless he was either on another call, he was out of town, or he was deathly ill.”
Beyond his dedication, “it was the stuff Manfred did behind the scenes,” that added to his character. As the owner and proprietor of Mid-Nytes Towing, Bialon was forever supplying cars for practice burns and emergency rescue training. And through it all, he never charged a fellow firefighter for a personal tow.
“I know that because I was one of them,” Piché admitted.
He meanwhile organized perhaps 15 annual “Ladder-thons” to raise money for cancer research. Set up in the parking lot of Overwaitea and then Save-On-Foods, Bialon said members would drum up donations by volunteering for an entire day’s worth of one-hour shifts spent in the ladder engine’s bucket.
No stranger to big rigs, Bialon said he will look fondly on the time he spent getting the department a new fire truck. He was so involved that he, and then Fire Chief Dale Heriot, twice visited factories in South Dakota that built and assembled GFFR’s Engine 352.
As Heriot’s right hand, in May 2018, Bialon said he watched the engine leave the downtown fire hall when at peak freshet, he ordered the building’s evacuation. “Everything was either lifted off the ground or rushed to other fire halls on higher ground,” he said.
It was a pivotal moment for the department. “Everybody showed up,” he said, adding that volunteer firefighters probably saved around 40 people. Again, Bialon chose his words carefully.
“There were no casualties. That was good.”
His volunteer career saw four chiefs pass through Grand Forks Fire/Rescue: Walter Boles, Jim Brindley, Blair Macgregor and Dale Heriot. In that time, Bialon said he was proud to work with fire chiefs in neighbouring departments: Ken Gresley-Jones at Christina Lake, Ray Terashita in Greenwood and Walt Osellame in Midway.