Paul Hurst didn’t have to wait for his baptism by fire.
Just hours after signing on as a volunteer on his 16th birthday, Hurst found himself inside a building engulfed in flames.
“It was at the old Cambridge Motel,” recalled Hurst in an interview with the Gazette reflecting on his 35 years with View Royal Fire Rescue. “I was inside a burning building at 2 o’clock in the morning the day after I filled in the paperwork.
Things have changed a lot since 1984. You can’t put a volunteer on a truck now without 18 months of training.”
“Mom tells me I wanted to be a firefighter from the time I was five or six,” said Hurst, who followed the path of his father, George, a long-time volunteer with the View Royal fire department.
“I started going to the hall with my dad when I was 12, washing trucks and emptying garbage cans.”
Hurst explored a number of career paths before he became a full-time firefighter in 1988. He juggled part-time work with BC Ambulance Service in Sooke and served five years as an Auxiliary Constable with the West Shore RCMP while volunteering with the View Royal fire department.
“There’s a lot of things you can do in your early 20s that I can’t imagine doing now,” said Hurst, View Royal’s fire chief since 2005.
That may include telling former fire chief Frank Bell that he wanted his job when Bell once asked him “What the hell are you going to do with the rest of your life?” he admitted with a chuckle.
|Fire Chief Paul Hurst has been with View Royal for 35 years, beginning as a volunteer when he was 16. (Photo courtesy of Paul Hurst)|
Hurst came close to a career in the military after he enlisted as a firefighter when he was 18.
“I got hired by View Royal just before I was deployed to Borden. I chose View Royal over the air force and never looked back.”
His daughter, Meagan, is enrolled in officer training at Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. “It’s pretty cool and I’m very proud of her,” he said. “She’s the fourth generation of Hursts in the military.”
Hurst has no plans to retire at this time, but indicated it will probably coincide with whenever his wife, Laurie, decides to retire from her position as Chief Administrative Officer with the Township of Esquimalt.
“I’m not going anywhere soon,” he stressed. I still love this job and I don’t know what I’d do without it. It’s incredibly rewarding on so many levels, lots of highs, lots of lows and in betweens. This job has taught me empathy and compassion and it’s made me cynical as well. It’s never boring because you never know what’s next.”
Although he received an award for bravery while he was off duty in 2013 for saving the life of a little girl trapped in a house fire, Hurst has a different interpretation than most people of what constitutes a hero.
“The plumber who shows up at 3 a.m. to fix a broken pipe in my house is a hero. The people who plow the snow away so I can get to work are heroes as well. It’s all a matter of perspective.
“At the end of the day firefighting is a blue collar job. We’re not curing cancer, we’re just trying to help people out like everyone else,” said Hurst. “The difference is we drive expensive trucks and wear uniforms.”
A surprise visit from a young woman holds a special place in Hurst’s heart, despite the tragic circumstances that surrounded their first meeting.
She was only six when the department came to her aid after the rest of her family died in a truly horrific set of circumstances.
“She showed up in my office 20 years later to say everything in her life was awesome,” Hurst shared.
“Things like that stick with you forever.”
The other side of that equation is that Hurst can tell you every intersection or street in View Royal where someone has died in a crash.
“It’s an incredible responsibility to be with someone in their last moments.”
One of the biggest positive changes he’s observed since he began his career is how the perception of the challenges of the work has changed over the years.
“We have a better understanding of the stresses of the job, whether it’s PTSD or cancer,” he explained.
“Back in the day you were just told to suck it up. We now recognize the accumulative effects the job has on some individuals physically and mentally.”
“The job is not for everyone,” he continued. “It kicks the crap out of you physically. I’ve lost so many friends to all kinds of cancer since I started. You get paid great money, but you have to learn to enjoy every day.”
One element that remains constant is Hurst’s appreciation for the department’s volunteer firefighters.
The View Royal department has relied on 278 volunteers since 1948, and he was the 116th to sign up.
“It’s a real juggling act for volunteers, balancing their home life and family and job with the expectations of a fire chief. We don’t have a fire hall without those volunteers,” said Hurst.
“I’m really happy and excited when a volunteer leaves for a full-time position in Victoria or Vancouver, but at the same time you’re losing great people.
“You trust your life with these people, our lives are in each other’s hands. The connections and friendships you make are something you cherish for a lifetime.”