Squamish's David Sweeney is in a red British phone booth recalling to The Chief his early days as a volunteer firefighter.
The sounds of London traffic and people chatting rise and fall in the background. The phone booth has no actual phone, he says with a chuckle. He's calling on his cell.
Sweeney and his wife Donna are on a combined work and wedding anniversary trip — they have been married 32 years.
This is life after Squamish Fire Rescue for Sweeney.
The long-time local retired this year after being a Squamish volunteer firefighter for more than 35 years.
He served on the Squamish Firefighter's Association executive for 30 of those 35 years.
Sweeney was 20 when he joined, following in his brother Sean's footsteps.
There were changes within the department over his volunteer fire-fighting career, mostly in how firefighters protect themselves both physically and mentally.
The gear and mental health supports for firefighters have vastly improved over the years, he said.
But the foundation of the force has remained the same, he said.
"At the end of the day... fire departments are always started by a neighbour helping a neighbour. In a small community, that is still really what occurs, especially in a community like Squamish where you have a composite department with some career and some volunteers. It is friends helping friends."
Sweeney had a day job, raised three daughters, was an active volunteer with youth soccer and served on several boards in town while also being a volunteer firefighter.
The camaraderie of the fire department kept him in it despite all the other demands on his time, he said.
"That emotional tie is the biggest reason," he said, adding volunteering is a Squamish tradition and a great way to be involved in the community.
Sweeney has been a life-long resident of Squamish. He was born on a boat in Zeballos — a remote community on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island — his daughter Danielle told The Chief, but his parents moved to Squamish when he was six months old.
His parents went on to own two Squamish businesses: Road Runner Sporting Goods and Glacier Athletic Wear.
Robin Garrett knew Sweeney even before he joined the fire department when the two were teens.
Sweeney's calling was clear, according to Garrett.
"One evening, just off Diamond Head Road, David spotted a chimney fire so — like a good citizen — he called 911 and then walked to the house to alert the owners, knocking on a door in the carport," Garrett recalled to The Chief.
"He was thanked on behalf of the family by their dog, which bit him on the backside."
Sweeney chuckled at the memory of rolling around on the grass with the dog.
"The homeowners came out and I said, 'Your house is on fire. Get your dog off of me'."
A few more dogs surprised Sweeney when he arrived as a firefighter over his career, but by then he was in turnout gear, so protected, Sweeney said, with another laugh.
Of his long firefighting career, a couple of moments stand out.
"One of the biggest ones was my brother and I actually were what we call the initial attack team — the first two people in — to my mother's business that was fully involved and completely consumed [by fire]," he recalled. "We got to directly help family."
Another memory of a young girl who died also stands out.
"I had a young daughter... I went home and laid with her for probably four hours thinking about what the poor parents were probably going through."
With a fire service in a small community like Squamish the bonds and ties you have in town are significant, Sweeney added, so you are often literally going to help someone you or your fellow firefighters know.
Garrett noted that Sweeney, on behalf of the volunteers, "made sure that the families of those not well or hospitalized received flowers and offers of help if it was needed," he said.
"We supported kids’ sports teams and local community events and much of this type of thing fell to David to organize. David almost single-handedly put together our annual golf tournament and, with his wife Donna, in recent years has helped a dedicated group of firefighters' wives to organize the reborn and very successful Firefighters Ball."
Reaching the marker of 35 years made it a good time to step back and let "fresh blood" take his place, Sweeney said of the decision to retire this year.
He said he hopes the people of Squamish — old and new — understand and appreciate the volunteer firefighters as an asset to the town, both financially and in terms of the ties that bind its members to the community.
Sweeney still has his day job as a financial advisor to return to, but in the meantime, he and Donna are off to Paris where he will attend the Women's World Cup game of Canada versus Netherlands on June 20, in Reims.
**Please note, a typo in David Sweeney's last name was corrected since it was first published.