She’s off the hook

Riverhead woman retires from four decades of answering the emergency phone

By Mark Squibb | Vol. 12 No. 19 (September 19, 2019)

After almost 40 years, a Riverhead woman is finally off the hook— literally.

Mary Whelan,77, has manned the Riverhead Volunteer Fire Department’s emergency response phone for 39 years.

She received her final call on the ‘fire phone’ last week from Fire Chief Earl Kielly to congratulate her on her decades of service.

Mary Whelan, 77, manned the Riverhead Volunteer Fire Department emergency number for 39 years. She retired from the post last week. Mark Squibb photo

Mary Whelan, 77, manned the Riverhead Volunteer Fire Department emergency number for 39 years. She retired from the post last week. Mark Squibb photo

“I made the last call to Mary the other day. I told her I was calling on behalf of the Riverhead Volunteer Fire Department and wanted to congratulate her the great job that she did over 39 years without any complaints, 24/7, 365. And that’s a feat,” said Kielly. “In 39 years, never once did we have a complaint. The phone was manned seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

Whelan was glad to take Kielly’s call.

“He told me I was off the hook,” she laughed.

There were two fire phones in the Whelan home, one in the living room and one in the bedroom, so Mary and her family never missed a call.

When the Whelans moved to a different home in the community in 1985, they took the phones with them.

An entry in the department’s log from that year notes that ‘the phone has moved.’

The department covers from Mall Bay to Riverhead, including St. Mary’s, and Gaskiers - Point Le Haye, and serves as a backup to the St. Vincent’s Fire Department. Being on constant call meant Mary and her family were at the forefront of every emergency in St. Mary’s Bay for the last four decades.

“It was a family thing. It wasn’t just a Mary thing,” clarifies Whelan, who said her whole family dedicated themselves to the task.

And it was much more complicated than simply being available to answer the phone; Mary and her family were also responsible for calling each volunteer firefighter individually.

“Mom might get one call. But between all of us, we probably put out 25 calls. Because it’s not just you’re getting the call; you got to find people to respond to that call,” explained Whelan’s daughter Anne Squires.

The firefighters were grouped into three groups, and family members would be assigned them.

“Mom would call one, my brother Bob would call the second one, and she’d call me to call the third one,” said Squires, who was 13 when the family brought home the fire phone.

Riverhead Volunteer Fire Department Chief Earl Kielly placed the last official call to Mary Whelan to congratulate her on her years of service. Mark Squibb photo

Riverhead Volunteer Fire Department Chief Earl Kielly placed the last official call to Mary Whelan to congratulate her on her years of service. Mark Squibb photo

“Don’t answer the phone unless you say, ‘Fire department,” she remembers her late father, George, instructing her.

“I can remember reaching for the fire phone, and dad standing up in the bedroom door waiting to see what he would have to do.”

George Whelan, who passed away in 2009, was a volunteer firefighter with the department.

“George Whalen— what a fantastic guy, man— he bent over backwards and went above and beyond the call of duty as a firefighter. The same as his wife,” recalls Kielly.

In the early days of the department, formed in the mid-seventies, there was no proper call system.

“Our main concern was how was anybody going to get hold of us?” said Kielly.

In 1980, George agreed to put the phone in his home, but only for a year.

“A year became two years, then three years became four years— and we never had no compliments. And nobody wanted to say to George, ‘George’s how’s the phone?’ because he might say ‘Get it out of my house!’” laughed Kielly.

Whelan laughs when she thinks back on the one-year condition.

“It must have been a leap year,” she chuckled.

The family was a perfect fit for the phone system, as George was himself a firefighter, and Mary spent her time at home to care for the Whalen’s handicapped daughter.

“I couldn’t go anywhere to help, I had Marie, so the only way I could help was to be there to answer the phone,” she said.

Over the years, the Whelan family answered about 835 calls, plus plenty of what the family calls ‘foolish calls’— wrong numbers, someone trying to get a hold of the family, or, on one memorable occasion, a man looking for a ride home.

“One feller one night at the club, he was calling home, but I’m not telling you his name, he was calling home to get someone to pick him up, but he was calling the fire phone,” explained Whelan.

The man, who had had a couple of beers at a Legion dance that night, was told by George that he had the wrong number and that he was calling the emergency fire phone number, but by the time George had gotten back into bed the phone would be ringing again. The man from the Legion was still looking for his ride.

“Finally, George called the Legion and said, ‘Don’t let him on that phone again,’” laughed Whelan.

Aside from a few odd calls, the Whelans took plenty of serious calls— fires, accidents, and suicides.

When Mary or another member of the family picked up the phone, they would never know who was on the other side; someone at the scene of a major accident, a false alarm call from a security company, or a fisherman wondering if George knew when the boats were coming in.

“We had hard calls, and we had foolish calls,” Mary said.

And though Mary is retiring, is seems her legacy is living on through younger generations.

One of her grandsons now works for Alberta Health as a 911 dispatcher, and one of her nieces works as a dispatcher with the Grand Prairie Fire Department.

“Mom volunteered at this for 39 years and now she has family members getting paid to do it,” laughed Squires.

And though she has received plenty of calls and notes of thanks from the community, Mary noted that, like every other volunteer in the community, she was only doing what she could to help out.

“Nobody ever said no,” recalled Mary. “Everybody was ready to help. And that’s what made a big difference.”

And though she didn’t earn any money or much recognition, she said that being able to help was enough. “The best part of it was getting to help someone,” she said.

“The second-best part was that a lot of times you got to tell 18 or 20 men where to go and sometimes how to get there,” she added with a laugh.

Former volunteer firefighter Danny Squires has agreed to take over the fire phone duty in the community, and, as always, the emergency number to call is 525-2222.

Posted on October 2, 2019 .