Renfrew – The town will soon be looking for a new fire chief with the announcement by Kevin Welsh he will be leaving next month to assume the same position in St. Thomas.
Chief Welsh came into his current role in January 2019 after former chief, Guy Longtin was suddenly terminated from the job he held for 28 years because of his age. He was 61 and was relieved of his duties less than four hours after council passed a by-law making it mandatory for firefighters to retire at age 60.
Chief Welsh arrived in Renfrew because of that controversial by-law and it is for that exact same reason he is leaving because he is only a couple of years away from having to adhere to the town policy and retire.
He has accepted the position in St. Thomas and his last day commanding the Renfrew Fire Department is November 12. He has a very simple explanation for his decision.
“I’m not ready to retire yet,” was his quick answer to a complicated question. “I am in good health and I feel I still have plenty to give. I will be honest and say it looks odd if you are on the outside looking in. It is something that I really had to wrestle with to come to this decision. It was one of the hardest choices that we as a couple have had to make, but I know it is the right one for us.”
Since he announced his upcoming departure late last week, he has repeatedly heard the same follow-up question.
“It is perhaps the most asked question I have had in a very long time,” he said. “People are curious and they ask me why did I accept the Renfrew position if I intended to leave in less than two years to avoid being forced to retire. People don’t realize that Renfrew is only one of a handful of Ontario municipalities to adopt this policy.”
Chief Welsh, who did not give his exact age but did say he was in mid to late 50s, said nothing has changed except his perspective.
“When I applied back in 2018 I had just finished as a Kingston Fire and Rescue Captain and Acting Platoon Chief with 28 years of fire service experience,” he said. “Both I and my wife Corinna agreed that I had accomplished much in my career and the time was right to begin plans to slowly wind down my career and to prepare for the next chapter of our lives.
“The Renfrew position filled my goals perfectly and I had no idea or inkling back then I would change my mind. I saw it as a good fit and the timing of less than five years was perfect for my plans back then. But we are all human and sometimes we change our minds.”
Volunteering Strengthens Communities
He knows and understands there may be skeptics who are doubtful he ever intended to make Renfrew a permanent home, but he and his wife have been too busy the last two years helping others to have time to worry what people are thinking.
Nowhere is the old saying “that actions speak louder than words” when one is talking about commitment and giving back to your community and the Welsh’s lead by example.
Since they moved into their historic home located in central Renfrew, one would be hard pressed to name any charitable event the couple have not been involved in. For almost two years iIt seemed that no matter the event designed to help others, the Welsh’s were there.
Whether it was serving up bacon-on-a-bun at the Renfrew Fair or volunteering at the Celebration of Life fundraiser for breast cancer, they were there and usually seen cleaning tables or emptying trash cans. If one walked downtown and saw Mrs. Welsh in the window decorating and donating Christmas Trees to the Golden Age Activity Centre as a fundraiser, they were not surprised. It seemed if there was an event to raise money for vulnerable people or causes, they were always present.
They volunteered at the Legion and a list of other causes too long to mention before COVID took over our lives. The couple were a shining example of what it means to selflessly give back to their new, and now soon to be, former community.
“There is no greater gift you can give than to give of yourself in order to help your neighbours and your community,” he said. “We have always been strong advocates of volunteering in your community and that will certainly be the case once we settle in St. Thomas.”
St. Thomas Presents Opportunities
He accepted the St. Thomas offer for a number of reasons and he considers his new community as one that has put the worst of the pandemic behind them as the city navigates the post-COVID world.
St. Thomas has two fire stations and a complement of approximately 50 firefighters. The city will be adding more resources that will fall under his command. e saidHSt. Thomas took a serious economic hit in the early 2000s with the downward trend in Canadian auto manufacturing and the workforce was dramatically reduced.
“But today, the city is flourishing and is recognized with a growing and educated workforce and it shows. That is one of the big reasons I accepted the offer. The city has rebounded and large numbers of people are moving to St. Thomas to start a new life in a small city.”
Chief Welsh pointed out the sudden and dramatic population boom is directly responsible for the construction of a third fire station.
Proud of His Achievements
Chief Welsh holds absolutely no animosity towards the current town council and he is grateful they gave him the chance to put his personal touch on some aspects of the fire station. He fully expects his replacement to also carry on the tradition of transitioning into the role and making changes along the way to reflect their line of thinking.
One of the very few times Chief Welsh was at a loss of words was when he was asked his most positive experience while living in Renfrew.
After a few minutes he remembered the despair and loneliness felt by many with the cancellation of the annual Lions Club Santa Claus Parade.
Last year when pandemic restrictions caused the cancellation of the December classic, he organized a ‘reverse’ parade during which Santa was hoisted in the bucket of a fire truck and children and their families could drive by, deliver letters and donate items to the food bank.
“I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to understand and appreciate the community spirit Renfrew has,” he said. “I honestly think that Renfrew has given us more than we have given back. I am still shocked when I just stop and watch people who may know nothing about a cause offer to assist financially or to directly volunteer for a cause. Renfrew is one of the most generous and genuine towns we have had the honour of being welcomed into and it just gets better from there.”
Fire Department In Good Hands
He is grateful and proud of the firefighters with whom he’s worked.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better group to work with in my first opportunity to be a chief,” he said.
Along with an improvised Santa Claus parade, he cites the recent recruitment of Renfrew's first female volunteer firefighter as a major accomplishment and one that he is proud to have been able to facilitate.
“The men and women who devote their lives to a profession with a sole purpose of assisting people during the most harrowing and terrifying time of their lives is unmatched. They are much more than uniformed personnel. I am proud and honoured to lead a group of people like that and when I tell people that for a brief time I led them in the performance of their duties, well there is no other word to describe that feeling than ‘awesome’.”
When asked if he had any regrets or concerns when he leaves on November 12 to begin the next chapter of his life, he responded in his typical way of injecting humour into his answer.
“It was not an easy decision, but it is not one I regret or have second thoughts about,” he said. “This department is in good hands with a good command team in place. After all, I am leaving on Friday, November 12. Just imagine if that Friday was Friday the 13th. Then there may have been some doubts.”
The town has not yet appointed a temporary chief.
Captain Tim Hill was appointed Acting/Chief following Mr. Longtin’s departure until Chief Welsh’s arrival. It is not uncommon for this type of recruitment process to take up to a year to complete.
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader