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Retiring Britannia Beach Fire Chief looks back

'This has been probably the best job I have ever had. It is definitely the most gratifying': David Rittberg.
Outgoing Britannia Beach Fire Chief David Rittberg, 70, is much more comfortable talking about his firefighters and the community than himself, even in an interview that is supposed to be all about him.

Rittberg retired from the department as of May 28 after 15 years of service. 

The new Fire Chief is Rob Nicholls. 

The Britannia Beach Volunteer Fire Department jurisdiction runs from the southern boundary of the District of Squamish southwards to the northern boundary of the Village of Lions Bay.

The Britannia contingent has approximately 30 volunteers. In 2020, the department fielded 61 calls — 28 for fires and 14 for motor vehicle accidents, and that is a lower call volume than normal, being amid a pandemic with fewer people on the roads and more people at home. 

The Squamish Chief caught up with Rittberg at the fire hall in Britannia to discuss his career, what is next and what he is most proud of. What follows is an edited version of that conversation. 

Q: Let's go back. Why did you want to be a firefighter? Was it something you dreamed of as a kid? 

A: It actually wasn't. In the 1980s, I lived on Pender Island and there was a need for volunteer ambulance attendants so I did that for a number of years. The fire department there had a full roster. Then in 1990, I moved to Furry Creek for a job as a land developer. I have lived there for 30 years. When the regional district took over the fire department in Britannia Beach — it turned from a private-run to a community fire department — I joined the fire department then. This has been probably the best job I have ever had. It is definitely the most gratifying. 

 Q: What are you most proud of from your time here? 

A: I think completing the grounds, the hall, the training yard, upgrading equipment, the utility vehicles, and a shelter for them. 

It is also the training and organization put in place, too. A lot of being a fire chief is administrative — working your way through a system. 

The biggest thing is the support from the community. We have an unbelievable volunteer base here, from both Britannia and Furry Creek. It really is a community fire department. 

Q: How has COVID been for the department?

A: COVID was like wildfire through fire departments. 

It really hampered our activities. We usually have six to eight community events a year. This last year we have tried and turned things into drive-by events. It has been tough. 

 Q: I read you still did 3,072 training hours of training during the pandemic, though? 

A: Yes. Mid-March 2020, the rug got pulled out from us, like everybody else. Never having heard of Zoom before, we became very proficient. A lot of our training is classroom training so that wasn't a difficult transition. Getting back to hands-on training took longer because we were following all the restrictions. 

It was tough because we can't see everyone together. In a small department, you know everyone, but I haven't been able to see some people — we have smaller teams practicing on different nights. 

But I am really proud to say that our department has come through it all without any COVID-19 exposures. 

 Q: And going out to calls, COVID must always be on first responders' minds? 

A: Yes, more PPE, a reduced number of people in the trucks, plus disinfection protocols, etc. etc. It is a lot more work and more stress on everyone. But we have come through it really well. 

 Q: From what I know of firefighters, you are a tight-knit group. Is that what you will miss most, the relationships? 

A: I will miss all the people, but we are still close and we are still friends. It is very different not to be carrying a pager and a radio after doing it straight for 15 years. We are all on call 24/7, 365 days a year. So, that is very different now. 

But you know, once you are in the firefighting community, you never really leave it. Even when we travel, it doesn't matter what country we go to; if I walk up to a fire hall, I get welcomed with open arms. 

 Q: What were the hardest or challenging moments of your time here? 

A: I don't know about hard, but as much as we train for everything possible under the sun, you can get to an incident and it not be something you specifically trained for. So, then we pull out all the different things we do know and combine them, and it works and pulls off the call. 

The other piece is making sure that all our vehicles are equipped and loaded with everything needed. The trucks are like a Swiss Army knife and so if you get to the scene and don't have what you need, you are in trouble. So a challenge is making sure everything you need, you will have. 

 Q: In the last 15 years, our understanding of the mental health impact on first responders has grown, can you speak to that? 

A: Critical incident stress management is an essential piece of fire department culture. Years ago, it was probably not recognized at all. We have had critical stress management for the department, and specific members after certain incidents, and the WorkSafeBC program is phenomenal for first responders. We used it in a big way about a year ago after an incident. 

Q: 2020 was a blip in terms of the number of calls for motor vehicle accidents, but have you found over the arc of your career that those calls have increased? 

A: We officially started to respond to motor vehicle accidents in about 2014. Prior to that, we didn't have jurisdiction over the highway. 

 We took over service on the highway between Squamish and Lions Bay. 

It required a whole new set of skills — new training and new equipment.

What also happened was the highway upgrade that put in barriers of separation on the highway. That may not have reduced the number of accidents in that sector, but it reduced the severity of accidents. People now sometimes bounce along on the highway barriers instead of getting into head-ons. We do have some major highway accidents still, though. Cars can still leave the highway around here quite easily. 

Q: Being in a community like this as a firefighter must be very different from being in a city because when you go to a call, you know the people you are going to help? 

A: Exactly. That is a big piece of it. That is another reason why our level of volunteerism is so high. The percentage of our population who are volunteers is off the charts compared to a larger city. We have less than 1,000 people here. Some places are having a really tough time because they don't have enough people. We have really strong and skilled volunteers. 

They are a really well-rounded group and they all bring skills that are really valuable. 

 Q: Why retire now? 

A: I have two daughters with families across the country: two grandkids in Calgary and two grandchildren in Toronto. It is time to go see them. 

The other thing is the department here is in really good shape. I have extreme confidence in Fire Chief Rob Nicholls, who I have worked with for many years and who is a friend. He has 40-plus years of fire service.

I have done a lot of things here, but it is about succession. It feels right. 

This fire department has been around in some form or other since 1904 — it started as mine-safety and rescue — there have been hundreds, and hundreds of firefighters and chiefs come through here. It is really gratifying that I can point to the pieces I have built, but it is time.