Port Colborne fire chief turns tragedy into raised awareness

Port Colborne fire chief turns tragedy into raised awareness
The St. Catharines Standard

Port Colborne Fire Chief Tom Cartwright has plenty to celebrate but is still haunted by one night in December 2016 that left his community in shock, sparking ongoing efforts to raise awareness about fire prevention and safety throughout the city.

Late last week, Cartwright, the head of Port Colborne Fire and Emergency Services since 2001, was officially named fire chief of the year by the Ontario Municipal Fire Prevention Officers Association.
 
The recognition is largely due to how his department reacted to a horrific house fire on Nickel Street on Dec. 15, 2016 that claimed the lives of four people, two of them young children.
 
It was determined that the home did not have functional smoke alarms and its owner was recently charged with a fire code violation accompanied by a $100,000 fine, the maximum penalty in the province.
 
An aggressive campaign to make sure local residents are protected with detectors has been the focal point of the fire department since the tragedy 10 days before Christmas nearly two years ago.
 
"That incident was a motivating factor as to why it's necessary to do your utmost to make sure the community is safe," said Cartwright in an interview Monday.
 
Asked how the tragic fire has affected him personally, he said it's something he will never be able to get out of his thoughts.
 
"It certainly bothers me to this day. I'm far more emotional than I ever was," he said.
 
It also stirs up memories of other serious calls from his more-than-40-year tenure in fire services.
 
"My mind kind of revisited every incident that I'd been involved in with in regards to deaths in my career," he said.
 
"Something like that impacts you significantly because it's such a large loss at once," he added.
 
He recalls responding to the fire from his own residence and hearing the dispatcher describe its intensity. He heard there were still people inside the burning house.
 
Not being able to help them due to the potency of the blaze is also something he has trouble shaking.
 
When he saw the fire his crews were facing, he recognized it was unlikely anyone would get out alive.
 
"It's an actual feeling of being useless. You feel like you failed those people," said Cartwright.
 
"That should have never been allowed to happen."
 
He said many of the men and women in the local fire department have families of their own, which makes coping with what was witnessed during the tragedy even more difficult and stressful.
 
"There's a larger impact when it involves children because most of us have children," he said.
 
The chief said the work being done by the fire service to promote prevention has been a team effort and that statistics have indicated it to be effective.
 
The city currently has a compliance rate of 39 per cent, compared to it being only 20 per cent a year ago.
 
"We are going in the right direction," said Cartwright, noting a number of initiatives, such as volunteers knocking on doors every Tuesday night, putting "constant pressure" on the community to make sure their properties are up to code.
 
"Our people are out on the road constantly, making sure people are safe," he said.
 
Cartwright entered the firefighting world in 1972 when he lived in Markham, Ont., and coincidentally bought a house next to the local fire chief.
 
He was quickly recruited as a volunteer and eventually made his way to a full-time position.
 
Cartwright was also the head of the Fort Erie Fire Department from 1991 to 1997.
 
In his more than four decades in the service, Cartwright has witnessed "massive changes" in the field.
 
The effectiveness of social media, advancements in firefighting equipment and technology, new rules and regulations — many developments in the right direction have been made, he said.
 
"It's all for the betterment and safety of our firefighters and our community," he said.
 
Port Colborne Fire and Emergency Services also has a deputy chief, 12 full-time firefighters, a fire prevention officer, and about 30 volunteers.