AFTER more than three decades with the North Vancouver City Fire Department and almost eight years in the top job, Fire Chief Barrie Penman is stepping down.
"I've been here almost 32 years. I've enjoyed it, but I'm tired as well. It's a good time. I'm young and I can move on," said Penman, who plans to spend more time with his son and stepson who play varsity basketball and major junior hockey.
North Shore born-andraised, Penman joined the department in 1981, and boasts that he held every job and rank possible there before being appointed chief in 2005.
"I've seen great change," he said. "There was a convertible fire truck when I started, compared to the high-tech, state-of-the-art equipment we have today."
Even hearing protection and breathing apparatuses were not mandatory parts of the old school of firefighting, said Penman. The increasingly regulated business of putting out fires made things safer, but also made doing the job a little more difficult.
"We used to be lean and mean, and we did it with fewer people. If there was a fire, we always did it with fewer people than Vancouver and accomplished the same thing. We're very proud of that," he said.
With a large part of his career spent on the front lines, Penman has accrued his share of stories
"The North Shore News fire (in 2005) was on the first day I was appointed to the new job," said Penman. "I remember standing on Lonsdale, thinking 'Here we go.' That will always be memorable."
Some of the other significant fires he's seen include Paine Hardware on Lower Lonsdale, which burnt to the ground on New Year's Eve 1997 and the nearby Great Outdoors sporting goods store, which burned down in October 1998.
Not everything has been knocking down fires and saving lives, though. Running the department as chief has its own rewards, he said.
"There are the accomplishments as a manager. You keep people safe. You do the best job you can, keeping in mind that it's taxpayers' dollars. It's the community that pays for the department, and we make sure we fulfill our obligations to the citizens."
There's also something intangible about running the fire department that fills Penman with pride as he retires.
"I'm a great traditionalist, and this place has a tremendous history. It's been around a long, long time - longer than the other North Shore departments and many of the other ones. We hold tradition high here. We're very unique," he said.
Penman doesn't have any say in who his replacement will be - that decision is up to city manager Ken Tollstam - but he does have some advice for his successor, who will likely be facing tough tasks ahead.
"You need to be passionate about this job; you need to be passionate about the City of North Vancouver," said Penman. "You have to ensure that the guys have the right tools to do the job. With all the budget constraints, there are all sorts of ways that you can do business. . . . I don't think they need to go to great extents to try to replace me. I think there are capable people around in the fire department who could probably take over."
Speaking as a former emergency responder and as mayor, the city's Darrell Mussatto offered praise for Penman.
"We're very proud of the work that Barrie has done in 31 years with the city," said Mussatto. "Barrie has made a very huge difference in a positive way. After 31 years, he's certainly earned his stripes and his retirement. He's a great fireman and will be missed by many."