Deputy fire chief retires in Port Colborne

Deputy fire chief retires in Port Colborne
St. Catharines Standard

Cleaning out his city-issued SUV and fire hall office drove home the fact Friday was the last day on the job for Port Colborne Fire and Emergency Services Deputy Chief Mike Bendia.

"It's definitely with mixed emotions, this has been a big part of my life for a long time," said Bendia.
 
"I've been here 41 years."
 
He joined the volunteer ranks in May 1977, became a full-time firefighter in 1981 and was made deputy chief 2015.
 
"The new deputy chief (Scott Lawson, the city's fire prevention officer) took over at 8 a.m.," said Bendia, sitting in his office for the last time Friday morning.
 
Asked what he'll miss the most about the job, the answer was the people.
 
"I've been working closely with Tom (Cartwright, the fire chief) since he came here in 2001. Every morning, unless we were at a serious call, we'd have coffee together and discuss what was happening in the department, what we were doing and where the department was going."
 
Bendia said Catherine Moyer, executive assistant to the fire chief, helped him immensely when he was fire prevention officer.
 
"I couldn't have done half of what I did without her."
 
He praised Lawson, who took over as fire prevention officer three years ago, and said he was doing a great job running various education, enforcement and prevention programs, as well as getting fire service messages out on social media.
 
"All of the crews, too. As management I know we had our differences, but when it came time to do the job there was never an issue. I respect them immensely for that."
 
Bendia said one thing he won't miss is his pager or cellphone going off in the middle of the night for a call.
 
"As I got older, and especially in the last two or three years, that was the really hard part. It wasn't as bad in the summer as it was in the winter."
 
He really noticed how the cold affected him during the Vinyl Works fire this past February where he spent nearly 30 hours on scene in frigid conditions.
 
"It took me a lot longer to recover than it used to."
 
He said it also started to become harder for him to deal with the aftermath of incidents involving fatalities, and even minor calls were starting to affect him more.
 
"Unfortunately, I've dealt with 11 fire-related fatalities over the years … the last four as part of a fire investigation."
 
Bendia was referring to the December 2016 fire on Nickel Street in which four family members died. That incident saw the fire service start an aggressive smoke alarm program and campaign in the city, with education and enforcement key components.
 
"We're looked at as leaders in Ontario in what we're doing and I am proud of the fact that I was part of that. For a small department, we do more than departments five times our size."
 
Despite the nature of the program and the countless messages put out in the community, Bendia expressed frustration over the low compliance rate in the city when it comes to both smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.
 
"We're at about 40 per cent compliance and I just don't understand it. There's no reason we should be finding people in this municipality without working smoke alarms. No one can say they didn't know."
 
Bendia said with the way today's homes are built, smoke alarms are all the more important.
 
"Fires are less frequent but are more severe today than they were early in my career. We always told people they had 10 to 12 minutes to get out. Now, with homes sealed up tight for energy efficiency and what's inside our homes, people only have minutes to get out."
 
The fires today are much hotter and can reach flashover conditions in half the time they used to, he said.
 
And while firefighting has always been inherently dangerous, it's more so now.
 
"When we arrive on scene now the temperatures inside can already be 700 to 800 degrees," he said. "There's no time today, that's why smoke alarms are so important.
 
Bendia's not sure what's he going to do now that's retired but said he's not going to make any crazy decisions in the next five to six months. He knows not having to be on call, as he was for the past 27 years of his career, will lead to fewer family functions missed or cut short.
 
"It will be a huge adjustment for me."
 
Cartwright said he hopes Bendia can make that transition to civilian life from always being at everyone's beck and call.
 
"I think he may have a bit of a struggle," said Cartwright, who had to make the same kind of transition earlier in his career.
 
He said Bendia's been his right-hand man since 2001 and the two have worked together on such things as consolidating three fire stations into one, running Wainfleet's fire service for seven years and more.
 
"He'll be missed," said Cartwright, adding Bendia had a great commitment to the city. "His work ethic was outstanding. He was available 24/7, didn't matter what it was he was always there to help."
 
Cartwright said he'll miss the morning talks with his deputy chief and the open line of communication the two had. Though they may have bumped heads at times, they were always able to work through things.
 
"I hope he enjoys a long retirement because he deserves it."