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'So proud' to lead New West fire team

Tim Armstrong happy to lead the way at city's fire department

Sit in Fire Chief Tim Armstrong's office overlooking the corner of Sixth Avenue and McBride Boulevard and it's not the beautiful scenery that catches your eye.

Instead, it's a paper cutout of one word that is behind Armstrong and visible only to the person he's talking to.

RELAX. "I put that there to remind myself and others that no matter how crazy things might seem, you can't panic," said Armstrong, who will be celebrating two years as Royal City fire chief this September. "This can be a hard job, but you have to keep things in perspective."

Armstrong has more than three decades in firefighting, with the majority of that coming in Vancouver.

When the top job in New Westminster came free in 2009, Armstrong threw his hat into the ring, and instead of being one of 800 firefighters in Vancouver, he leads a crew of 96 firefighters in New Westminster.

"It's been quite refreshing here," said Armstrong. "It's a great city. It has all the elements of a big city but all the things you really want in a small community. I can't tell you how many community events I've been to where I see so many familiar faces helping out and giving back."

Armstrong added that on a firefighting level, there isn't much difference on the front lines because firefighters are like the ultimate team, bands of brothers willing to sacrifice for the person standing beside them.

But there is a difference at his level.

"I'll use an example," Armstrong said. "I wanted to put together a structural collapse training model so that all of our members can be ready in case of an earthquake. We went to council, got our approvals, and it was all set up within months. The only thing that held us up was getting funding approvals from the provincial and federal government."

Armstrong said trying to implement the same model in Vancouver would have many more obstacles.

"Part of it is a function of size," he said. "To do the same thing in Vancouver would take two or three years, and it would be an immense undertaking to get all 800 members up to speed on something like structural collapse."

Armstrong said he didn't know what to expect when he accepted his current post two years ago.

"I had heard there was some tension between management and the union," he said. "I'd like to think it's much improved. ... I feel like the labour climate has improved and we're all working together."

That means Armstrong can concentrate on long-range plans, including a 10-year plan that could see the fire department replacing its oldest current fire hall on 13th Street.

"That's something we will have to look at in the future," he said. "I don't know where a new fire hall would go because I want to do the analysis of where it might go."

Armstrong said another key change in his 30-plus years of firefighting is the role technology has played in the evolution.

"All of the guys are wearing state-of-theart turnout gear, and they're using computerized equipment," he said. "It's a big change from the days of the old 'Leather lungs' guys who wouldn't wear a mask, take a big gulp of air and then enter a fire (situation). We have a lot more information on what's best practices and what is safest."

Armstrong said another key change is that actually fighting fires is a much smaller percentage of a firefighter's duties and responsibilities.

"We're really first responders," he said. "Look at what happens when there are natural disasters, like earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes.

"You see firefighters on the frontlines digging through debris. ... We also are right there for car accidents and a lot of emergency situations. ... We do fight fires, but we do a lot more."

As the fire department celebrates its 150th anniversary in the city, Armstrong said the sense of team is what he believes is the hallmark and enduring legacy of the New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services.

"All of these guys, their job is to help people in need," he said. "And when they're off duty, they all contribute to the New Westminster Firefighters' Charitable Society.

"The difference is that with their charitable work, the guys are so very humble about what they're doing. They're not looking for publicity, they're just looking to help out wherever they can. ... That's really quite admirable and why I'm so proud to be a part of and leading this team."