In the last 15 years Vanessa Devolin has expanded her role within Tillsonburg Fire and Rescue Services.
Starting in 2005, Devolin was administrative assistant to the fire chief. She moved into the dispatch department, and four years ago started supervising fire communications, leading up to an official appointment by the Town of Tillsonburg as acting deputy fire chief in August.
“When the deputy chief was off, I ended up moving downstairs and moved into a manager role,” said Devolin. “This is my second round as acting deputy – I did it for a bit before Brad (Lemaich, fire chief) came.
Devolin describes her acting deputy chief job as being eclectic.
“I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for quite a while, but I also take care of public education, fire prevention, fire comm, and I do payroll, and then I do a lot of operational stuff too with whatever is needed. I’m kind of a catch-all when it comes to that. So making sure the men and women have their gear, getting them uniforms, it’s really eclectic.
“When Terry (Saelens) was off, then when he became chief, I’ve been doing that for quite a while, basically doing all the roles I do now, I just wasn’t acting deputy at the time.”
“Vanessa has taken initiative identifying gaps or needs and then takes ownership of tasks that maybe aren’t assigned to a specific person,” said Tillsonburg Fire Chief Brad Lemaich. “Vanessa’s taken the initiative to jump in and tackle a lot of those things here. She’s become an integral part of just about everything’s that going on in here to one extent or another. In some cases she’s 100 per cent of the driving force, and other things she’s varying roles to support, assist, facilitate.”
Devolin is also Lemaich’s emergency management alternate.
“There’s a lot of things,” Devolin smiled.
Her training has involved fire-related courses, including chemistry and combustion, but she does not do fire suppression.
“There’s a lot to it, it’s just not actually on the fire ground.”
“The common misconception for most people is they assume that fire department administration either must come up from the suppression ranks or have their knowledge base initially in suppression,” said Lemaich.
“As a fire department grows, which Tillsonburg Fire and Rescue Services has, we have two separate but equal divisions here. The communications division and we have the suppression division. If you look at a larger fire department, currently City of London fire department, their chief came from the fire communications division. She doesn’t have a fire suppression background but she has all those other skills as a manager and human resources person… and she has her content experts as her deputies (suppression, training, communications, etc.)… and we’re at the very early stages of that here, as I see it. I’m not counting on Vanessa to ride the truck and spray water on a fire, I’m counting on Vanessa for the other skills that she has, which to me equally qualify her to be in the role of deputy fire chief.”
The Tillsonburg fire communications division continues to grow, and with it Devolin’s responsibilities.
“Fire comm is getting bigger – a lot bigger,” Devolin nodded. “It’s 34 stations, and with Fort Erie starting in December, that’s an additional six stations.”
“We currently provide service to 19 different fire departments,” said Lemaich. “And we deliver that dispatch service serving a population of 250,000-plus citizens right now.”
“So fire comm does take a lot of focus obviously,” said Devolin. “We’ve gone from two shifts to three shifts now, so that’s also a game changer. We do an overlay of an afternoon shift to cover call volumes.”
“Based on my time away, and then coming back, the reputation of this department as a communication service provider has grown in leaps and bounds,” said Lemaich. “There’s a lot of interest and a lot of talk out in the suburban and rural – not the far distant rural, say south of Barrie – these medium size communities that are looking to us as the industry leader for servicing those type of communities.”
Devolin’s future as acting deputy chief – or potentially designation as deputy fire chief – is up to Tillsonburg town council.
“I’m hoping that council will have an open mind,” said Devolin. “If they want me to do something, or think I need anything training-wise, I’m willing to do it. That’s not a problem, I just need to know what they want.”
“Tillsonburg, as a progressive, inclusive, welcoming community… we have female suppression firefighters,” said Lemaich. “Obviously we’ve recognized at some point that that is not a gender based job, and it’s the same in the administrative side with the senior leadership here. Again, it’s inclusive, and we recognize that gender doesn’t play a part. It’s the best person for the job. We’re happy to show off our talent and not be locked into preconceived gender roles based on traditional stereotypes.”