Dress uniform-clad firefighters lined the side wall and back of council chambers as the mayor offered a sendoff.
An honour guard stood at the door as Mayor Nils Jensen bid adieu to Deputy Chief Tom Pearse. He started May 1, 1988 as a probationary firefighter and retires April 30 as deputy chief.
“You exemplify our firefighting unit,” said Jensen, launching into a lengthy list of Pearse’s accomplishments and commitments, including serving as chair of the bursary committee, initiating the annual tree recycling, serving as CPR education chair and working with juvenile intervention.
“That’s something that really gives back,” Jensen said. The opportunity to give back to the community is one of the reasons Pearse joined the department in the first place. He wasn’t disappointed, enjoying the moments educating children to be “prepared not scared.”
“A highlight would be teaching fire safety and fire prevention to our citizens, particularly the kids. Kids are so enthusiastic about learning,” he said.
Pearse taught programs such as the Fire Safety House, school fire drills and in recent years, the Grade 3 emergency prep program through the Oak Bay Emergency Program and fire hall tours.
There are of course other moments that stand out.
An epic road trip marked 2010. He and then fire chief Gerry Adam flew to Columbus, Ohio and drove their then-new fire engine the 4,000 kilometres back to Oak Bay.
“It was a very fun trip,” he says. Fuel stops at small-town service stations along the way offered much fodder.
“We got some very interesting looks and comments like ‘what the heck is an Oak Bay’?” he said. They encountered a few minor mechanical issues and one instance of chief doused in antifreeze, but “other than that, things went smoothly.”
Though thought of most commonly when there’s a blaze, another standout memory sits firmly on the other end of the thermometer. During the blizzard of 1996 Pearse worked the day after the big snowfall and didn’t return home for days.
“I was here five or six days … (Greater Victoria) was at a standstill,” he said.
Co-ordination and co-operation with public works and they had streets cleared and things moving.
“Some lessons were learned and things improved upon,” he said. “We’re good at that here at the fire department.”
Family support is critical while working a four-on-four-off rotation with both day and night shifts in a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday world. He got it in spades from his wife and extended family.
“One of the things that allowed me to do the job with confidence that things were good at home was the support of my wife and family,” he said
During the first year of retirement, Pearse and wife Susan plan to “enjoy a summer at home.” Both enjoy hiking and outdoors as well as tending to their expansive veggie patch. A visit with their daughter in the Yukon is also in the planning phase.
“The following year, 2017, is just kind of open. We’re going to see what comes along,” Pearse said.
Assistant Chief Darren Hughes takes over the deputy position May 1 and a new assistant chief has yet to be decided.
“We’re certainly sorry to see Tom go; he has very strong leadership skills,” Hughes said.
Among his projects, Pearse was key in implementing the health and wellness initiative last year at the fire hall.
Hughes, a 23-year Oak Bay firefighter, held the assistant chief title just shy of three years and anticipates a higher administrative load with the promotion to second in charge.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate having been with Oak Bay so long, and hired quite young. I’ve seen a lot of change in the fire service.”
The changes extend well beyond modern equipment – modest at the small local firehall – into maintaining quality skills. Firefighters today are expected less to be a “jack of all trades” and more an “expert of all trades,” he said.
“It is the people that make the difference. The people are what make the department operate at a high level,” Hughes said. “My job now is to ensure we provide those skills and tools so they can do their jobs well.”
Pearse shares Hughes’ sentiment that the good people made Oak Bay Fire a great place to finish a career.
“I can say I’ve enjoyed coming to work every day,” Pearse said, crediting the firefighters and administration. “If it wasn’t for them, we’d be an average fire department doing an average job and that’s not who we are.”