North Perth fire Chief Ed Smith reflects on 40 years of service

North Perth fire Chief Ed Smith reflects on 40 years of service
By Terry Bridge
Stratford Beacon Herald
Link to article: North Perth fire Chief Ed Smith reflects on 40 years of service

Ed Smith (Handout)

Ed Smith remembers his first fire call like it was yesterday.

In January 1978, the 21-year-old rookie volunteer firefighter headed to battle a shed blaze along with the rest of the Elma Logan department. Clad in a large coat and hip wader-style boots, he grasped onto the back of a firetruck as it barrelled towards its target.

“I can remember going to a lot of calls hanging on the back of one of the trucks in the wintertime when it was storming and we never thought anything of it back then,” he said Thursday over the phone from Listowel. “Now today you would never dream of doing that.”

From safety regulations to training, a lot has changed since Smith first signed up to help fight fires in and around his hometown of Monkton. Now chief of the three-station North Perth Fire Department, Smith was recently recognized by the municipality for 40 years of service.

“I never dreamt I’d reach that point,” said Smith, who will turn 62 later this year.

In the late 1980s Smith was promoted to captain of the Elma Logan department and, in 1994, chief. Although a respected title, it was a part-time position. Away from the fire hall Smith, a third-generation mechanic, ran Ed's Auto Repair and Service in Monkton, a business he built from the ground up and operated for nearly 25 years.

Balancing both duties was time-consuming but worthwhile.

“The fire service was a passion of mine,” he said. “Most of the time I ever took off from the shop was to go to the fire college to take training because I did enjoy it.”

In the early 2000s, North Perth was searching for a full-time fire chief to oversee the amalgamation of its three stations. Smith, who was busy preparing to double the size of his auto repair shop, wasn’t planning on applying.

But after talking it over with wife Heather, he had a change of heart.

“We had a big talk one night and I said, ‘Well, maybe I should throw my hat into the ring and see what happens,’” he said. “The rest was history, I guess you could say.”

Smith’s first day was Oct. 1, 2001; he sold the business about six months later.

Looking back after nearly 17 years, Smith said bringing the three departments together was a rewarding experience. He currently has about 60 volunteer firefighters – 26 in Listowel, 16 in Atwood and 18 in Monkton – at his disposal. Two of Smith’s sons – Darryl, a captain, and Thomas – have been based out of the Monkton station since signing up in 2003 and 2010, respectively.

The training his boys and the rest of the current crew have gone through is much more extensive than when Smith first volunteered.

“You were told when the siren goes here’s where your gear is, you get it on and somebody will tell you what to do. Now my firefighters – we’re doing a recruit class right now – they’re putting in over 140 hours of training before they can even get a pager to ride the trucks,” he said. “It’s totally changed.”

Although there’s been plenty of positive memories, Smith had to guide the department through a tragic event – the death of two of his firefighters. On March 17, 2011 – St. Patrick’s Day – Ken Rea and Raymond Walter were killed while battling a dollar-store blaze in Listowel.

“I knew them quite well,” he said. “It was a tough thing to go through, it sure wasn’t one of my better times in my life.”

The roof of the Dollar Stop – constructed with lightweight materials – collapsed. One week later thousands of people lined Main Street, including then-premier Dalton McGuinty, to pay homage to the first two Perth County volunteer firefighters to die in the line of duty.

“There were a lot of chiefs that said to me after that they never, ever wanted to have to face something like that, we all hope we get through our careers and never have to deal with the loss of a firefighter,” Smith said. “Unfortunately we had to.”

But the tragedy has become an important part of firefighting legislation in the province, he noted. The Rea and Walter Act, a bill requiring commercial, industrial, and many residential buildings to clearly show if they were constructed with lightweight materials, was passed in the Ontario legislature this past April.

Closer to home, Smith has also overseen the creation of two new stations. A state-of-the-art facility in Listowel was finished in 2010 and, after nearly a full year of construction, the approximately $1.1-million project in Monkton is about a month away from being finished.

But it’s not just about bricks and mortar. Reflecting on the last four decades, the camaraderie with fellow firefighters and fire officials is what stands out.

“That was a big part of it,” Smith said.

As for retirement, he’s discussed it with Heather but no decisions have been made yet.

“I must enjoy it or I wouldn’t stay here,” he said with a chuckle.

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