Veteran firefighting leader calls it a career

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GarySmithby Fred Groves

A four-generation commitment to the Town of Essex has come to an end.

Gary Smith, a senior captain with the Essex Fire & Rescue Service, recently announced his retirement from the firefighting brigade, which installed his great-grandfather Sam as its first Chief back in the late 1800s.

His departure, after 33 plus years, including the past 16 as Captain at Station 1 in Essex Centre, leaves a large hole in the department that one fellow smoke-eater described as, ‘cutting off your dominant arm.’

When he was a young boy, Smith started hanging around the old brick fire hall on Victoria Avenue. An avid photographer, he recalled taking pictures of the 1980 Essex explosion, and as soon as he was old enough, joined his father, Sam, in protecting their community.

“I grew up in the fire department. I’ve been hanging around the hall since I was 10. I always wanted to be a firefighter,” he said.

His late father, Sam, became Chief and was one of the most beloved and respected top firefighters Essex has had, serving for 42 years. Gary’s grandfather, Sam’s father Andrew, joined in the 1940s.

“I have been doing it for 33 years and now it’s time to move on and do other things I enjoy,” Smith commented.

Besides photography, he enjoys riding his motorcycle and continues to work at his day job for the Canadian government in a management position.

There is little doubt Smith and the rest of his family clan have dedicated their lives to serving and protecting Essex. In order to be a good leader, he said its important to conduct yourself with integrity and honesty, which will gain your crew’s trust and loyalty.

“It’s a sad day to see him go. Along with that is the family legacy. Sam and Gary are true role models for this community,” Firefighter Brandon Chartier commented.

Gary Smith added that it is key in a fire department to be fair and to place the welfare of the community and station ahead of your own desires and, above all, not to have any hidden agendas.

Firefighting has changed a great deal since the first time 17-year-old Gary Smith was told to drive one of the trucks to a field fire out in Maidstone. He remembers hanging onto the back of one of the old pumpers.

“The adrenaline has been there since I was 10. I still lay out my pants and shirt like I’m going to a call. I don’t know if I will ever be able to shake that.”

And while members of the Smith family have rose up the ranks in the local department, they have always been in the middle of the action and there for the others to follow and learn from.

“I remember the Beaver Lumber fire. I was up on the aerial truck for four hours and that’s when we wore rubber boots. I forgot my socks and my feet were frozen. I didn’t want to come down.”

Fire departments are built on tradition, not only through generational duty but each fire hall, or as many call it a ‘house,’ becomes the place where families gather.

Smith said for over 50 years the Station 1 handshake has been respected. Firefighters entering the fire house greet each other with a handshake, repeat it after an emergency call, and when they meet on the street.

Asked what he will miss most, in his own rather odd sense of humour, he said, “What I will miss most is the guys and making fun of how they looked and dressed when responding to a call during the early hours. It ain’t pretty.”

There is a bell in the fire hall dedicated to the late Chief Sam Smith that, now when rang, will have even more significance.

Thanks Gary, carry on.