North Perth Fire Chief Ed Smith leaves behind 44 year legacy as he announces retirement

North Perth Fire Chief Ed Smith (photo by Bob Montgomery)

North Perth will begin the search for a new fire chief following the announcement this week that Chief Ed Smith is retiring as of October this year.

Smith has been firefighting for 44 years, with all his years spent at the former Elma Logan and North Perth Fire Departments. He began his career at 21 in Elma Logan, before moving over to North Perth, where he has served as North Perth Fire Chief the last 20 years. Smith says it’s with mixed emotions that he steps away, but he knew it was time. He says a lot has changed in his 44 years of service, particularly training.

“I always tell my recruits, they probably learned more in their recruit class, to just get started before they could even ride a truck than I probably learned the first 5 years I was on the fire department. When I started, it was a whole different world, they gave you a helmet, some boots, and your coat, and you basically got on the truck and you got told what to do when you got there and that’s how you kinda learned was hands on, by listening to and watching the other guys. Of course we didn’t have pagers then, either, you got called in by the siren.”

Chief Smith also says that of course, equipment has changed a lot over the years for the better and is much more high tech than what he started with. He says luckily he worked with a great council in North Perth over the years that listened to what the fire department’s needs were in terms of equipment and always got them what they needed.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Smith says mental health treatment and management has changed a lot since he first started, and he says that’s a good thing because the job can be very taxing emotionally.

“Unfortunately I probably faced probably the toughest challenge as a fire chief when I lost two firefighters. Yeah, it takes its toll, and a lot of people don’t realize that, as a volunteer or full time firefighter, the job takes its toll on you. As I always said, ‘What the eyes see, the mind can’t get rid of.’ It has opened up a lot, though, with treatment for PTSD and Critical Incident Stress, it has changed things a lot and it has opened up. When I started, you were supposed to ‘toughen up’ as they say, and at times we had some bad occurrences and we would get a bunch of us firefighters together and talk about what we’ve seen, but things have changed and there are better supports now.”

The two firefighters Chief Smith refers to are Ken Rea and Ray Walter, who tragically died in a fire at a dollar store on main street in Listowel that caught fire, but was unsafely built, causing the roof to collapse. Chief Smith was instrumental in the development of Perth-Wellington MPP Randy Pettapiece’s private member’s bill, named the Rea and Walter Actin honour of the two North Perth firefighters. The bill was introduced in 2017, and will hopefully become law shortly. The bill aims to notify firefighters when truss and lightweight construction is present in buildings. The official explanatory note of the bill is available on the Legislative Assembly of Ontario website, and reads as follows:

“The Bill amends the Building Code Act, 1992 regarding the identification of truss and lightweight construction in specified buildings that are under construction or to be constructed.  New section 15.8.1 requires a truss identification emblem be affixed to a building in accordance with specified rules and such other rules as may be prescribed.  Similar amendments are made to the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997 with respect to existing buildings.”

Smith says for him, that memory sticks out as one reminder of how tough the job can be, and he says more openness and more outlets for mental health supports are a necessary thing to have available for all first responders.

“Now it is more open and more heavily addressed in regards to PTSD, which is a good thing. Everybody is built a little different, and you never know when you’re gonna have that day that it might be a little more than you can stand.”

In regards to the North Perth community whom he has served for over the last 20 as fire chief and 44 in total, Smith says he was proud to serve them, but what he will miss most are his firefighters, past and present.

“I’ve had some really, really great people that have worked with me through the service and have been really supportive the whole way through. Even people that have retired now and still come in and see me and are still really supportive to me. Some of the relationships I’ve developed, too, across the province are just remarkable. Some of them are retired, too, and we still have a relationship and became longtime friends and that has meant a lot, too. But as I say, I was proud and privileged to serve the public here in North Perth.”