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First on the scene

The Surrey Museum showcases the city's early police officers, firefighters and paramedics
Who you gonna call? John Coltman

From Surrey’s dusty pioneer days to the demands of serving a bustling metropolis, they’ve kept law and order, and raced to the rescue in emergencies – often at great personal risk, even death.

The story of the city’s first responders is told in a new, permanent exhibit opening July 9 at the Surrey Museum.

The museum’s curator of exhibits, Greg Yellenik, worked in consultation with the RCMP, Surrey Fire Service and BC Ambulance Service to tell the story of emergency response in Surrey, from informal bucket brigades to 9-1-1.

“Interpreting this information has been revealing,” Yellenik says. “This new exhibit tells a story of Surrey’s growth from a very different perspective.”

It’s the first major upgrade to the permanent exhibition gallery since the new museum opened in 2006.

The 400 square-foot exhibit features police, fire and ambulance artifacts, from a pair of handcuffs used by Surrey’s first police constable to a mobile water pump used during the Second World War to fight fires, drawing water from nearby sources.

“It’s a way to honour our local heroes and validate the sacrifices they made for our safety,” Yellenik, says. “Telling their stories is a way to educate the public about what’s behind the safety net we all rely on every day.”

Volunteerism played an integral role in Surrey’s early first response.

Fires were initially fought by neighbours forming human chains who dipped buckets into wells, ditches or creeks (the first hydrant in Surrey wasn’t installed until 1954).

“There was nothing,” he says. “There’d be a bunch of farmers and they’d all respond.”

Surrey Fire Services can trace its origins to the Volunteer Fire Brigade in Cloverdale, where the sound of a fire alarm still sets pulses racing for men like retired volunteer fire chiefs Bruno Zappone and Alan Clegg, residents who juggled family and work commitments with civic duties.

Not included in the exhibit is Engine 3, a Surrey-built fire truck (1972) that’s stored at the Surrey Museum, a symbol of the evolution of fire services in the city. Surrey built 10 or 12 like it at a time when a new fire truck would have otherwise cost $30,000.

“We were building them for $10,000 apiece in the ‘70s and they served the city of Surrey for a long time,” Yellenik says.

The turning point in modernizing emergency response in Surrey came during the Second World War, when the federal government established Air Raid Precaution Units for civil defence, bringing modern fire-fighting equipment to Surrey and greater organization of ambulance services in the form of St. John Ambulance first aid posts.

Volunteers were paid $2 a year.

“Within a couple of years, they couldn’t afford to pay them any more, they had so many volunteers,” Yellenik says.

The Surrey Ambulance Service started in the 1950s, operating until 1974, when it became part of the BC Ambulance Service.

From 1887 to 1951, Surrey had its own police force. In the early 20th century, even those who were paid to respond to emergencies weren’t necessarily well compensated.

Surrey Municipal Police Chief Alex Matheson, who retired in 1937, wasn’t able to live on his police wages, Yellenik says. He maintained his blacksmith shop and took on other municipal duties, from poll tax collector, relief officer and even district fire marshall.

The Surrey Museum, 17710 56A Ave., is open Tuesdays to Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. (Closed Mondays and statutory holidays). Admission sponsored by the Friends of the Surrey Museum and Archives Society. Call 604-592-6956 or visit

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