New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services is now being overseen by its third chief in less than six months – and the top two spots in the fire department are currently vacant.
Tim Armstrong, who had served as the city’s fire chief since September 2009, retired on Oct. 28, 2021. In a memo circulated that day to city staff, Armstrong said that after taking some much-needed holiday time and reflecting on the next chapter of his life, he had decided to retire.
“Having served 40 years this month in the fire services and public safety, it has been a difficult decision, but it’s time for a change,” he said.
Armstrong took the helm of New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services after serving as the Vancouver Fire Department’s assistant chief, special operations and urban search-and-rescue team task force leader. In 2017, he was named Fire Chief of the Year by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.
Sources told the Record that Armstrong had last been seen at the fire hall in the summer, before attending wildfires in the Interior, and never returned to work. In the past, retirements of senior staff, including the engineering director and chief librarian, included public acknowledgements of their contributions from council members, but that hasn’t happened in the wake of Armstrong’s retirement – and news of his departure has come as a surprise to some community members attempting to contact him at the fire hall.
“Tim Armstrong’s colleagues, including myself, would congratulate him and wish him all the best on his well-deserved retirement, and thank him for his years of service and many contributions to the city and NWFRS,” Richard Fong, the city’s director of human resources, said in an email to the Record. “Our CAO, Lisa Spitale, sent a formal congratulatory message that she shared with all city staff when Tim Armstrong made his retirement announcement, recognizing his retirement and thanking him for his service and contributions to the city.”
Shane Poole, president of the New Westminster firefighters’ union, said the union wishes Armstrong well in retirement. He declined to comment on the union’s relationship with Armstrong during his time in New West and had no details about when the chief’s position would be filled.
“For the citizens of New West, we will always remain on guard for anybody,” he said. “We will remain professional and work with anybody who does come in as a fire chief and continue doing what we do.”
Who’s in charge?
Following Armstrong’s retirement, deputy fire chief Curtis Bremner served as acting fire chief through the summer and fall of 2021.
While overseeing the fire department, Bremner worked out of city hall, rather than the department’s administrative offices at the Glenbrook fire hall. Fong said that was so he could work more closely with the city’s chief administrative and senior directors as the newest member of the city’s senior management team.
The Record recently contacted Bremner, at which time assistant deputy fire chief Erin Williams responded and stated he was serving as acting fire chief.
“Deputy Chief Bremner has made the personal decision to retire from the city,” Fong said when contacted by the Record.
According to Fong, Williams is now serving as acting fire chief and is working out of the main fire hall.
“Erin began serving in the acting fire chief role upon Curtis Bremner’s retirement announcement approximately three weeks ago,” Fong told the Record Jan . 31.
New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services has a six-person management team that includes the fire chief, the deputy fire chief and four assistant deputy fire chiefs. The fire chief’s position is vacant due to Armstrong’s retirement, the deputy fire chief’s position is vacant due to Bremner’s retirement and the four assistant deputy chiefs are Erin Williams (currently acting fire chief), Jennifer Gjaltema, Rob Dick, and Jeff Gill.
In November, the city’s website showed screening was underway for an assistant deputy fire chief. Fong said that posting related to filling a vacancy that was being created by the retirement of assistant deputy chief Bruce Zelter, who has now retired.
According to Fong, Gill is now filling the assistant deputy chief position formerly held by Zelter.
A current posting for an assistant deputy fire chief with New Westminster Fire and Rescue Service is to replace the vacancy resulting from Bremner’s recent retirement, Fong said.
Although Armstrong’s official retirement date was Oct. 28, the city has yet to post the fire chief’s position.
“Given the ongoing pandemic and recent retirements of Tim Armstrong and Curtis Bremner, this is an opportune time for the city to review and reflect on the fire department’s organizational structure and make any necessary adjustments to support the fire department moving forward,” Fong said. “When this review is completed, the city looks forward to commencing formal recruitment activities for a new fire chief.”
Is the city’s director of human resources concerned that three people have been in charge of the fire department in less than a year?
“Like many other organizations, the city has seen unexpected retirements and resignations from staff as the pandemic has provided an opportunity for individuals to reflect upon their personal and work lives,” Fong said. “The city is working closely with fire department staff to support them during this transition period.”