On Monday, Jan. 8, Dan Copeland heard the bang of a car crash near his North Delta home. A firefighter since July 1982, his instinct was to turn on Scan BC and listen as emergency responders drove towards the scene.
“I piss these guys off by texting them, saying ‘Are you on top of this?’” Copeland said.
Since 2007, Copeland has been Delta’s fire chief.
This March, he’ll be stepping down to enter a life of retirement.
It’ll be a big change for the veteran firefighter.
“[I’ll miss] the challenges, the excitement — whether I like to admit it or not, it is exciting,” Copeland said.
Take Copeland’s first day as fire chief, when a fire broke out in Burns Bog.
At 12:30 p.m., not long after his first meeting with municipal staff, Copeland got a call that the bog was on fire. Over the next several days, the department worked to contain a blaze the size of two football fields.
“I remember on the second or third day just driving out and saying to [then-Delta Chief Administrative Officer] George [Harvie], ‘Just give me three weeks and I’ll have this down better,’” Copeland said.
”And he said, ‘Well, I’ll give you three years.’”
It didn’t take Copeland quite that long to become comfortable in his position — he said he felt confident in his role by year two — but, like with any senior administrative role, the challenges never stopped coming.
In 2008, the department’s fleet was upgraded with mobile data terminals to allow for better dispatching, tracking and record keeping. In 2010, Delta Fire made significant strides towards creating an effective and well-trained hazmat team to support neighbouring communities during the Winter Olympics. In 2012, the fire department hired its first female officer.
More recently, Delta firefighters were trained as emergency medical responders, a controversial decision that enabled them to administer more complex medical care.
“We were accused of breaking the law; we were accused of wasting taxpayers money,” Copeland said. “But we went ahead … and so far, touching wood wherever it is, … we haven’t had any complaints to the medical oversight doctor.”
Since then, the department has expanded its role to include the ability to administer naloxone in cases of opioid overdose.
Both Mayor Lois Jackson and Copeland have called Delta’s firefighters second-to-none in the province in terms of qualifications and skill sets, although the mayor might argue they are among the best in the country.
But the reason Delta’s firefighters are so well trained is because of the complexities and size of the city.
“We’re such a diverse community,” Copeland said, noting that firefighters in Delta are responsible for not only residential and commercial areas, but also the container port, airport, hospital, major highways and three different industrial areas.
Copeland brought up one of the department’s lowest moments to illustrate the difficulties.
In January 2015, long-time Delta firefighter Mark Janson died after being hit by a pickup truck in Langley. It was the first time an active member of the department had passed away.
The entire department attended Janson’s funeral, which required neighbouring municipalities to fill in at Delta’s fire halls.
“The point of this is, that was the day we had a major accident on Highway … 99, when a dump truck hit the centre median and burst into flames,” Copeland said.
“You had Vancouver firefighters going, ‘Holy mackerel, that was the furthest I’ve ever had to drive to a call in my life going Code Three,’” he continued.
“It speaks to how spread out we are and how come we have to be so diverse.”
As chief, it was Copeland’s job to spearhead different initiatives, but it was always done with the front line firefighters in mind, who Copeland said can take the credit for the department’s ability to handle Delta’s challenges.
“Anything that we’ve brought forward, we’ve tried to do it with their input, because they’re the end user,” Copeland said. “They’re the ones who know what they need to do their job.
“For us, we’re the getters,” Copeland added about the administrative staff. “We go get them what they need, and we have to put the business case forward.”
As chief, Copeland was responsible for liaising with city hall and coming up with the department’s long-term plans. His deputy chiefs, such as Copeland’s successor Paul Scholfield, are responsible for doing the leg work to make it happen.
“I think, the biggest change is going to be less hands on and more creative,” Scholfield said about his upcoming switch into the chief’s role.
“As a deputy chief sometimes your thinking pattern is in the moment, whereas the fire chief you have to be thinking two, five years down the road.”
A member of the Delta fire department since 1991, and deputy chief since 2010, Scholfield’s experience made him an “obvious choice” to take over as chief, Copeland said.
A number of projects will be coming to fruition under Scholfield’s reign as chief: the new Boundary Bay training and emergency operations centre, for one, and the integration of GPS dispatching in fleet vehicles.
But Scholfield’s goal for his years as chief are a little more broad.
“One of the areas we can work on in the future is actually more fire prevention-related,” he said.
“We can try to reduce the number of fires ahead of time [with] public education, if we can get out more to the community and try to make Delta a safer place.”
“This a growing municipality,” he continued.
“The growth out here is probably going to be our biggest concerns we have over the next five to 10 years.”