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New fire chief takes command

Chief John McKearney brings extensive experience to new role

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Three weeks into his new role, new Whistler Fire Rescue Service (WFRS) chief John McKearney is still settling in.

"It's amazing actually ... I was a little bit concerned about how I might be received coming as an outsider, but the firefighters and the staff have been wonderful," McKearney said in a Nov. 26 interview.

The new chief arrives in Whistler by way of the City of Vancouver (after about 15 months of retirement/consulting work), where he started as a floor firefighter and worked his way up the ranks, serving as lieutenant on the rescue squad and training officer before being promoted to deputy chief and then fire chief.

"This was something I always kinda wanted to get my hands involved in, is a composite department," McKearney said, of his new position.

"What really attracted my wife and I up here is it's a lovely community. You've got a really engaged, small career workforce supplemented by a large group of almost 60 volunteer firefighters.

"In Vancouver I had 16 exempt staff that really led the department. I was just there as a figurehead, whereas coming here, I've learned very quickly that I've got to get to know all the workings of the fire service."

The WFRS team is "wonderful," and morning meetings are much more intimate than he's used to, McKearney said.

"It's great communication lines," he said. "Where I previously worked as a fire chief, there was 84 different work groups, so trying to communicate was always a challenge, whereas this is lovely."

In terms of his priorities for the service, McKearney said he wants to ensure work already done to date, like on wildfire prevention, doesn't get disrupted.

"There's no grievances here," he said.

"There's a good working relationship with the Whistler firefighters and the (Resort Municipality of Whistler) ... and there's a good commitment between the career staff and the volunteers. They work very close together here, that's not always the same across Canada."

The new chief likes what he's seen from his team so far.

"Firefighters have to be prepared to go in there with their training, with both their mind and their body ready to take it on, because they really are part responder, they're an inspector, enforcement officer, they need to be right up on public safety as an educator, and they need to be a safety professional," McKearney said.

"Firefighters, whether it's here or Vancouver, wherever, there is an expectation by our citizens that we must act, both on duty and off duty, at a high standard, and I see these firefighters here live that."

McKearney is a member of both the Institute of Fire Engineers and the Metro Fire Chiefs Association. He served as past director of the Fire Chiefs Association of BC and the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, and was part of the British Columbia Fire Commissioner's Diversity Taskforce. His resume also includes earning an Executive Chief Fire Officer designation though Harvard University's Senior Fellowship Fire Executive Program.

It's an impressive CV, but McKearney has dealt with adversity in the past as well.

A 2014 story in the Vancouver Sun detailing the results of a City of Vancouver employee engagement survey showed that just six per cent of respondents from the Vancouver Fire Department had confidence in McKearney and his management team at the time.

McKearney doesn't shy away from the issue.

"It's fair comment. The time that the city decided to do an employee perception survey was at the same time where our fire service was without a contract ... and we were also in a fairly protracted arbitration on officer training," he said.

"It was a long arbitration that did settle that point, but it was in the raw at the time."

Throughout the process, McKearney said he had a very good relationship with the local union, despite how it was sometimes portrayed in the media.

"We were able to get a lot of these things solved before I left through one of only four freely negotiated contracts with Local 18, the association, which included a very responsible approach to paying for officer training, but it also gave the city some flexibility as well," he said.

Asked if he had anything to add, McKearney urged the public to take caution as they shift to winter—a firefighter through and through.

"This time of year now, with the wood burning fireplaces getting cold and wet, the chimney fires are going to go up," he said.

"I think people are FireSmart much more than they were over the last several years, and that's a great thing, but don't let it slide."

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