The historic Harbour Grace volunteer fire brigade has a new person at the helm. And for the first time since late 2005, it's a man.
Veteran firefighter Ray Verge donned the fire chief's hat on Jan. 1, taking over from Sonia Williams, who made history as this province's first-ever female fire chief.
Verge was unopposed, and was unanimously supported by the roughly 40 other members of the brigade.
"I'm proud to say I'm serving as the 23rd chief," Verge said last week.
In keeping with tradition, Verge was elected for a one-year term. But beginning in 2012, a new two-year term will be implemented.
Verge takes over leadership of arguably the oldest volunteer fire brigade in the province, but its membership remains vibrant and strong. He said knowing he will be surrounded by so much knowledge and experience - including several former chiefs - made the decision to step forward much easier.
And the time was right for him to make the commitment. He's now working full-time as a paramedic, his young son is in full-day school, and his wife, an active member of the ladies' auxiliary, is fully supportive.
"I've always had a good feeling in giving back to the community," Verge said.
Verge credits his experience with the fire brigade for helping get his career in the medical field on track, and is enthusiastic about his new role.
He also had high praise for his predecessor, describing Williams as very dedicated and passionate about firefighting.
"No other fire chief put the time into it like she did," said Verge. "She'll certainly be a tough act to follow, and I certainly look forward to leaning on her for advice from time to time."
Verge promised to approach the job with an open mind and a positive outlook, and vowed to continue the effort to replace the brigade's two aging pumper trucks.
"It's our top challenge," he said.
Reputation of leadership
Harbour Grace Mayor Don Coombs said Williams did a "tremendous job," and described her as a "gold star chief."
"She broke new ground as the first female fire chief and she deserves our thanks," Coombs stated.
He's confident that Verge will uphold the reputation of solid leadership.
"He'll do a good job. It's a good brigade and we're proud of it," he said.
As for Williams, the decision to step down as chief was deeply personal. Her father, Frederick Williams, has been battling cancer, and she's very involved in his care. She previously lost her mother to cancer.
Williams said it was a very difficult decision.
"I took great pride in that position, and respect the very long history of the brigade," Williams said. "Being chief was a very enjoyable experience."
Williams did not hesitate when asked her most difficult moment as chief. Her first call after assuming the post on Jan. 1, 2006 was a serious motor vehicle accident near the town, which resulted in the death of a young person from Harbour Grace.
Her proudest moment came in the summer of 2008, when the department helped rescue a teenager from Carbonear who fell over a 35-metre cliff near Bristol's Hope.
And what about being the first-ever female fire chief?
"I just took it one day at a time. I never thought about it that way," she said.
Williams, who has served 16 years with the brigade, will stay on as a firefighter.
About Ray Verge
• Age - 39
• Hometown - Harbour Grace
• Occupation - paramedic with Eastern Health in St. John's
• Family - wife Barbara-Ann, and six-year-old son Nathan
• Firefighting experience - 18 years with the Harbour Grace brigade; 15 as a member of the executive. Served two terms as assistant chief, and was most recently a crew chief. Is a Level II certified firefighter with the National Fire Protection Association. Also served three years as a junior fireman.
• Notables - graduate of the former St. Paul's school in Harbour Grace
About the Harbour Grace Volunteer Fire Brigade
• Established - 1830
• Brigade strength - 40-plus firefighters
• Ladies auxiliary - 12-plus members
• Junior fire brigade - eight members
• Top of the Ladder Club (retirees) - 20-plus members
• Emergency dispatch - one of the few volunteer brigades in the province to have a 24-hour dispatcher on stand-by
• Emergency number - 596-5151