Retired fire chief stresses importance of continued training, safety

Kathy Bockus/Courier Jeff Richardson has retired as the chief of the St. Stephen Fire Department. His career has spanned 37 years, the last 25 as chief.

St. Stephen – Expect anything, and be prepared for everything.
That’s the advice St. Stephen Fire Chief Jeff Richardson has for those who want to join the fire service.

And he should know. After 37 years as a member of the St. Stephen Fire Department – the last 25 as its chief – Richardson, who retired at the end of 2017, has seen and done it all.
What will he do with his free time?
“What I want, when I want – once I get through Sharon’s ‘honey do’ list,” he said with a laugh.

He and his wife, Sharon, had a goal to retire in Canoose, on property on the bank of a stream. They’ve been building towards that for 17 years, gradually adding to what was a originally a camp, and is now their retirement home.
“I’m a homebody,” stated Richardson, adding he had no plans to travel the world. Give him a stream, a fishing rod, a cup of coffee and some grandkids to fish with, and he’s happy, he said with a smile.

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Richardson’s career in the fire service began one night when his father-in-law, Leo Richards, who was chief of the St. Stephen Fire Department, came by.
“He said ‘I hear you’re interested in the fire department’. I said ‘I guess so’,” said Richardson with a laugh.
“He said ‘good, because you got voted in tonight’.”

Richardson had made the offer to his father-in-law to help out as a volunteer, because there had been a number of forest fires in the area.
“Once you get into it, it’s like anything else. It gets in your blood. It’s hard to get away from it.”
And don’t be fooled. Richardson isn’t walking away completely.
“I’ve been placed on the roster of Moores Mills fire department,” he admitted with a grin.
Richardson said a firefighter never knows when the call for a fire is going to come in. “There’s been a good many meals missed, family events,” he said.
His is a family of firefighters. His sons, Jason and Joe, and daughter-in-law, Trish, are all members of the St. Stephen department.

“We still put the wet stuff on the red stuff.”
~ Jeff Richardson

Richardson said there’s a lot of stress with the job of fire chief, but what he will miss most are the people he’s worked with over the years.
Walter Cooke is one of those people. He and Richardson joined the department full-time in the early 1980s, and together they spent many hours training Charlotte County firefighters, after completing their own training at the fire school in Saint John through the New Brunswick Community College.

Cooke commended his co-worker and friend for his years of devotion to the fire service, filling in as driver, dispatcher, and firefighter, so others could have time-off. He also noted Richardson’s commitment to working with many groups and committees both in the fire service, and various communities to further fire safety.

“You have to involve yourself on a local and provincial level in order to get the information back to firefighters,” stated Richardson.
He lauded the fire prevention program his father-in-law started in local schools, which the next chief, Charlie Denyer, continued.
“We’ve built on that, and I expect it will continue.”
Richardson said he would like to see fire prevention taken more seriously by the public.

“At one time we use to say you had approximately seven to eight minutes to escape from a burning house.
“You don’t have that choice anymore,” said Richardson. Now you have less than four minutes to escape a burning building from the time a fire ignites.
“It’s because of the different ways they build homes, and all your furniture. There’s nothing natural – it’s all manmade products, and most of it is petroleum based – upholstery, carpeting if they still have it, all those many, many layers of varathane on the floors and walls.”

There have been many improvements over the years in the technology and equipment firefighters use to battle blazes, said Richardson, noting the increased convenience, efficiency, and safety.
“There’s better protection for firefighters. Trucks are getting bigger, with more built-in safety features.” Richardson also noted foam systems have improved to a point where the foam is injected into hose lines, instead of having to be mixed and then used.
“Jaws Of Life are battery powered now – you can take apart a vehicle on one charged battery.”

There’s no need to lug around a gas-powered unit and all its hoses, which powered the hydraulics.
Is there anything that hasn’t changed?
“We still put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” said Richardson with a grin.
The camaraderie has stayed the same. “The bond is there.”

Dwayne Richards has been a member of the St. Stephen Fire Department for 33 years, both as a volunteer, and as a captain. His role is now as a firefighter, and driver dispatcher.
Richards is both part of Richardson’s “fire family” and real family. Sharon Richardson is his cousin.
He said Richardson has been a father figure to many firefighters.
“He’s taken care of us,” said Richards. He said a fire chief has to be a father figure “stern and hard when he has to be, but really concerned about the membership.”

Richards recalled the time about 20 years ago, when three of the firefighters were caught in a flashover in a fire on Union Street. One was badly burned. “Jeff was there to support us through that. That was one of the darkest moments we had. He kept us together.”
On the other hand, one of the brightest moments, Richards said, was when firefighters successfully raisied the money for a new rescue truck.

“Jeff and his staff have never ceased to amaze me,” said Coun. Marg Harding, who has served twice as chair of the town’s police and fire committee. She said Richardson will be missed, and hard to replace.

“If the fire department wanted something, they went out and fundraised for it. This fire department under Jeff has never felt entitled. They never felt that they were owed something by the taxpayers of the town, so they took it upon themselves to fund raise for what they wanted.”
Harding noted the one thing Richardson has wanted for a while for the department is a ladder truck.

“We have not had the funds in the town’s coffers, but we have been saving for it for a few years, and my hope is that we will have enough money to buy this truck soon,” said Harding.
Richardson said he intended to “push until the last gun fires” for a new ladder truck for the department. He said firefighters had documented the reasons the town needed one – older two-storey homes with attics, the Garcelon Civic Center, and large apartment complexes for seniors.

“It’s for the safety of the citizen, and the safety of the firefighters.”
Richardson said it is vital firefighters stay abreast of change in fire fighting methods, and technology. His advice to new firefighters is to come into the fire service with an open mind, and be willing to take any and all training offered to them, “and ask for more.”
Be prepared for the unexpected, Richardson advised. Arriving at what was toned out as a chimney fire could be a full-blown structure fire, he explained. A crash thought to involve a single motor vehicle could be something different altogether.

“When you get there, you’ve got two cars piled up, and you’ve got multiple patients.”
Richardson laughs when he remembered one “unexpected” incident. He and other firefighters arrived on the scene of a motor vehicle accident. He was standing next to a paramedic, who was treating an elderly woman. The paramedic turned to Richardson, and said “hold this.”
Richardson cupped his hands and was startled, but retained his composure, when the paramedic placed the woman’s severed finger into his care.
“So yeah, be prepared for the unexpected.”

Richardson didn’t specifiy the worst fire he ever attended.
“Any time there’s a loss of life,” he said. “One is too many, and any time there’s a child involved.”
He said working with school kids on fire prevention projects have been the most enjoyable times he has had.
“Kids are the best part of the job, seeing their excitement when they visit..,” he said with a smile. His advice for a new fire chief?
“Be very open. Listen to everybody, and pound the fire prevention. The easiest fire to put out is the one that doesn’t happen.”

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Kathy Bockus
Journalist Kathy Bockus is based in St. Stephen and has worked for The Saint Croix Courier as a general news reporter and feature writer for the past 15 years. She began her lengthy newspaper career in 1974 with a daily in Saint John. Bockus says she always jokes being a reporter is a licence to be nosey, but firmly believes that everyone has a story to tell. She can be contacted at 321-0759.