As a young man, Steve Hernen didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, but he found his mission in the fire service, eventually becoming fire chief.
Hernen joined the Huntsville/Lake of Bays Fire Department at the age of 20.
“I wanted to give back to the community, to get involved in the community and emergency services was something that always interested me. I was a mechanic at the time. I looked at policing, I looked at many different things. I had some problems with my eyesight so I knew I couldn’t get on [full-time] so I thought I’d try the volunteer side,” he said.
Five years after he joined the department, he got on full-time as the training officer and trained new recruits and existing firefighters.
“I was eager to learn, people were eager to learn,” he said. “The fire service was just starting to switch over at that time. It went from a true volunteer role to a more professional mode. Lawsuits were prevalent throughout the province and it was forcing municipalities to step up their game with training.”
Hernen said the department now has one of the best training programs around.
“I hear it and I see the results of it. To the credit of our training department and our recruits, look how many are getting picked up by career departments. When I first joined, they gave you your pager and your gear. There was no recruit training, it was just show up and help. They had monthly training, but nothing like we do now with a new recruit or even an existing firefighter. The first six months I was here I had six structure fires and I was inside them and didn’t have a clue what I was doing, compared to today,” he said with a laugh.
Recruits now go through rigorous training to earn their level 1 and level 2 certificates from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
“The fire service has got a history,” said Hernen. “It’s well known the fire service has never let progress get in the way of tradition. So to implement changes, to try new ideas, there were lots of uphill battles. To make fire prevention the first line of defense and to educate the public was a huge step. We used to just fight fires and I remember many people would say, ‘why do we want to prevent them? We fight them.’ Well every fire we prevent, we don’t have to fight. When you went from the good ol’ days where people just showed up and didn’t train to the standards of today, to a very regimented training program for the protection of all, not everyone opened their arms and said, ‘let it happen’. When we brought females into the fire service not all our members, at first, opened their arms and said, ‘bring them in’. There was resistance and we had to persevere.”
From training officer, Hernen then stepped in to the deputy fire chief position and, in 1997, Hernen’s mentor, then-fire chief Ross Payne, retired and Hernen was promoted to the role.
“He showed me the political ropes,” said Hernen. “In an administrative chief role you have to deal with council, it’s a whole different side of the organization. Ross always used to tell me, ‘learn to count’. If you don’t have the votes when you go in and ask council for something, don’t bother asking. So if you’re going to go in and ask for a new fire truck make sure you have five supporters before you go in the room.”
One of the changes Hernen is proud to have worked on over the years is protecting double hatters―full-time firefighters who continue to work on a volunteer fire department.
He did this as president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC), from 2017 to 2018, an organization where he is still on the board of directors.
“It was obvious that it was an unfair stipulation that was held against a volunteer firefighter, where if you got to a career department and an organized workforce, the union would look for them to quit the volunteer department. Many, many people got their start in small communities, loved it, took on a career and then were forced to resign. This legislation protected all volunteers in the province of Ontario.”
Being a volunteer firefighter demands a lot of time and commitment, something Hernen’s family knows well.
“I truly believe it’s a commitment the family makes when somebody joins the department,” said Hernen. “It’s one thing for the member to be out on training nights, responding to fires and the extra activities they get involved in. But at least when they go out they’re with a group of their peers. We can never lose sight that every time they leave their house or leave for training, there’s somebody that has to do double duty, whether it’s taking the kids to soccer, or explaining why dad’s not there for the birthday party or attending family functions alone.”
“I was on the fire department before I got married and before the [two]kids came along so they had a full life of it,” he said. “With my added duties as a fire chief I remember getting up in the night and putting them both in car seats and they were coming with me. My young lad, Mark, used to have his own fire uniform, he used to put it on and sit in the Jeep. He knew he wasn’t allowed out of the Jeep but he’d sit in it with his uniform on.”
Hernen’s advice to those just starting their fire career is to to be fully aware of the commitment they and their family are making.
“You’re going to have to embrace and accept the first two to three years where there’s extensive training,” he said. “But it’s a great career and if I did it all again, I wouldn’t change anything.”
Hernen did various stints over the years with the town’s public works department. Then in 2017 he was asked to step into a new role as director of operations and protective services.
“When I went there the intent was I’d be there a couple days a week to help them and my main focus would still be in fire,” he said. “At that time there was an understanding and a commitment that a) if it didn’t work I’d be back at fire and b) in 2020 they would implement the fire chief’s position back to the original dedicated employee because the reality was in 2020 I’m eligible for retirement.”
But Hernen’s not ready to fully retire.
“Here we are, it’s 2020. I don’t think it’s any hidden secret the existing staff have been carrying my load. My two days a week at public works quickly became six days at public works and a drop in at the fire hall and a morning coffee to get caught up. Now is the time to continue growing the organization; put the fire chief back in here as a dedicated employee that can pay full attention and continue to lead this department where it needs to go. Rather than fully retire, my intent is to stay on as the director of operations and protective services.
“I recognize as a fire chief I’m not dedicating the time this place needs and I think it needs somebody here dedicated to provide leadership and direction. At the same time we’ve done some great things on the operation side and we have some great things going and I want to see them through to the end.”
Hernen would like to see the next fire chief rise from within the organization.
“I think we’ve got some great talent within the fire service. I would hope and encourage all members to apply. But whoever becomes the chief is going to have to understand they have a very progressive and eager fire service and a growing community. So although we like to say this is a bit of a retirement community, this is not a retirement position. So I don’t see Johnny old guy moving from out of town to finish his career here.”
Although Hernen sees the benefits, professionally, to stepping down from fire chief, it didn’t make for an easy decision personally.
“I see what this place needs and I know the needs of other divisions within the organization,” he said. “On a personal note, it was as hard as hell. I’ve given my life to the fire service and to say, ‘I’m going to step back and go in a different direction at my age’, it was a tough decision.
“How do you sum up 35 years? Everybody knows we’ve got a great fire department; it’s well recognized in the community and respected. Although it’s a team effort, someone has to lead it and provide a vision.”
When asked what he’d say to those thinking of joining the fire department, Hernen simply said, “Do it. I’ve found so many personal rewards; the rewards of helping people, the rewards of accomplishing things, the new friends you make, the extended family. My best friends came out of this place.”
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