Retiring firefighter worked to prevent tragedies

Tom Marshall remembers a time when he would stand at the front of a classroom in his Sarnia Fire Rescue uniform and ask how many students had working smoke alarms at home.

A scattering of hands would rise.

“Now nearly every hand goes up,” says the fire department’s public education officer.

“There’s been a big change over the past 10 years. I like to think I’ve made a difference in my community.”

Marshall, 59, says it’s been an “honour and a privilege” to directly speak to as many as 6,000 local residents a year about fire prevention and safety.

But all good things come to an end, and he is retiring after more than 27 years of service. The man, who has been a familiar face to countless school-aged children, will be replaced by an as-yet-unnamed education officer.

Marshall was raised at Ipperwash and began volunteering with the Forest fire department in 1978.

Nearly 10 years later, he was hired as a full time professional firefighter by Sarnia Township, and then joined the city’s fire department with amalgamation in 1991.

“I grew up listening to stories about my grandfather and my uncle who were firefighters in London,” he said.  “My grandfather died before I had a chance to meet him, but I think the stories about him influenced my choice.”

Interestingly, grandfather and grandson were both identified as firefighter Number 67 at their respective departments.

“It was just a coincidence,” Marshall said. “But I always liked that.”

Marshall said that during his years of fighting fires he attended many calls involving unattended cooking.

“Most fires start because people don’t pay attention to what they are doing,” he said.  “If you think it’s never going to happen to you, you’re wrong.”

Many kitchen fires were caused when people became impaired and used poor judgment.

Drinking and cooking is as lethal a combination as drinking and driving, said Marshall.

“I point that out a lot.”

In 2002, he moved to the fire prevention office, doing inspections and some community education.  Five years later, he took on the full time role as the department’s public education officer.

He made it his own, raising public awareness by working with media, rewarding local citizens for fire prevention work, and canvassing for a fire education truck he affectionately calls Sparky.

Marshall introduced annual safety awards for the best fire drill times in local schools.  He initiated the Chief of the Day program to recognize local kids for their fire prevention knowledge.

Annually, he’s visited at least 25 elementary schools, senior fairs and high-rise buildings. In recent years, Marshall started to teach kitchen safety to high school home studies students.

“The highlight of my career has been educating people,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ve prevented a good number of fires from happening.”

Marshall’s final day on the job is July 31.

– Cathy Dobson