Deputy fire chief hangs up his axe after 36 years

Danette Dooley
Published on March 24, 2012
St. John's Regional Fire Department deputy chief Jack Hickey stands next to an old trench coat firefighters wore when he became a firefighter in 1976. - Photo by Danette Dooley/Special to The Telegram

Jack Hickey often heard other veteran firefighters say he'd know when the time was right to retire. After 36 years on the job, the deputy fire chief of the St. John's Regional Fire Department made that decision about two weeks ago.

Hickey joined the fire department Aug. 2, 1976.

"I was 19, working in construction that I thought was the best job in the world, but dear old Mom said, 'You're going to be a fireman.' I had no inkling about the fire department, but she said, 'That's a career. Go get your hair cut tomorrow. You got an interview.'"

Hickey got the job and hasn't looked back.

He worked as a firefighter during the first decade of his career and went on to train as a firefighter/paramedic, joining the department's high angle, confined space and water rescue teams.

Hickey was promoted to lieutenant in 1999 and accepted the position of deputy chief of support services about a year later. His main responsibilities were firefighter training, fire prevention and the 911 communications system.

Hickey moved into the position of deputy chief of operations in 2005.

It's a position he calls "the ultimate job," and the one he'll retire from on Friday, March 30.

"This is a job where you're dealing with the hands-on all day long with the crews."

Looking back over the decades, Hickey says, there were more fires back in the 1970s.

At that time, he said, firefighters were responsible for outlying communities and wore long, heavy trench coats and rubber boots.

"I can remember driving to Pouch Cove on the back of the truck at three o'clock in the morning in a snowstorm. It took us about half an hour. When we got there, we could hardly get off to fight the fire, we were so cold."

Firefighters today have the best of clothing, breathing apparatus and other equipment, including thermal imaging cameras, Hickey said.

Hickey credits fire prevention initiatives, new fire codes and better building materials for the fact that fires aren't as prevalent today as they were decades ago.

Through the years, he said, he's had many great mentors in the department, such as Harry Blackmore, George Pottle and Jack Wood.

Hickey would like to be remembered as the deputy chief who brought firefighter safety to the forefront.

After taking on the role of deputy chief of operations, he began researching accountability systems for firefighters.

When a fire breaks out today, he said, there's an accountability officer at each fire whose sole job is to keep track of other firefighters.

The department's new radio system also includes an emergency alert/safety button.

"If a firefighter got trapped or lost, they'd press the button on their radio. That would send a signal back to 911 which would flash the portable radio number on the board."

The accountability officer would know exactly where that particular firefighter was in the building, he said.

The department has "rapid intervention" firefighters on the scene of every fire. These individuals are dressed in full gear, their breathing apparatus on their backs, ready to enter the burning structure if a comrade gets in trouble.

Hickey says the department's firefighters' survival program teaches firefighters how to save themselves.

"We've spent our lifetime saving people and we're going to continue to save people. That's what we do. But we've also trained everyone in the job to save themselves."

Hickey nods when asked if there are any specific fires that have stayed with him. Fires where people lost their lives are never easy, he said.

"Do you think about them? Yes. Do you relive them? Yes. Do you tell anyone about them? No," he said, adding that firefighters now undergo critical incident stress debriefing after such calls.

The department now has three female firefighters. They are just as competent as the men, he said.

Hickey said during his years in management, he's learned a lot from his chief - Mike Dwyer.

"He's a very good teacher, a very knowledgeable man."

° ° °

Hickey began competing in firefighting combat challenges in 1999 - a competition dubbed "the toughest two minutes in sport."

His first world competition was in 2002 in Deerfield Beach, Fla. His first run brought with it a time of 2:14. Hickey's training time back home was under the two-minute mark.

"I looked at my wife (Loretta) and I remember saying, 'What am I doing down here? I'm embarrassing myself and I'm embarrassing the department.' I went around like the big sookie Newfoundlander.'" He laughs.

Hickey competed again two days later and won his first world championship.

Since then, he's clinched 11 world championships and three world records. One of the world records still stands - a tandem record he shares with a fire captain from Halifax.

Although he's retiring, Hickey, 55, still has the option of competing. He may do that, he said.

But for the immediate future, he'll spend more time with his wife, daughter Tamamarie Ford and her family.

"Pop's little girl (Zooey) is two years old and we have another baby coming in August. We got the news yesterday that (Tamamarie) is having a boy."

Dwyer says Hickey has had a hand in every aspect of the fire department over his lengthy career.

"Jack has done great work here. Life is a full-time learning process and Jack has the ability to take something he didn't understand, research it and understand it. ... He was very competent in what he did. ... Everyone in the department could look to him for guidance. He's going to be missed."

Greg Lynch worked as fire protection officer with the fire commissioner's office until three weeks ago, when he accepted a job with Hebron.

Lynch describes Hickey as a very driven man.

"In his career, he has assumed roles in suppression, medical response, high angle rope rescue, ice and water rescue and fire prevention, and has excelled with each challenge."

Hickey also showed tremendous respect for the volunteer fire service and supported them with training and surplus equipment, Lynch said, and helped other firefighters, including himself, achieve their goals in the Canadian Firefighter Combat Challenge.

"Jack is the definition of strong, quiet leadership by example. It has been an honour to work and play with him over the course of our careers."