COLUMN: A salute to retiring fire chief’s exemplary career

COLUMN: A salute to retiring fire chief’s exemplary career

Len Garis is retiring at the end of this month after 18 years as Surrey’s fire chief.

He has done an exemplary job in heading up the team of first responders whose roles have changed greatly during his years at the helm of the department. Firefighters used to be called to fires (naturally) and other challenging situations such as car crashes, natural disasters and medical distress. Now, they are called to all of those, but also to try to help people who have overdosed on drugs – on the streets or in their homes.

Under Garis’ leadership, Surrey Fire Department has developed a number of innovative approaches to this pressing societal issue, and a variety of other complex issues. This has been the underlying theme during his years heading the department – “How can we deal with these issues in a more innovative and creative way, while at the same time taking the best possible care of first responders?”

Early in his tenure, he was instrumental in helping track down and shut down homes used to grow marijuana. Often, these homes had improper electrical installations which were a significant fire hazard. The nature of the hydroponic growing also meant that many of these homes were damaged significantly by the production of the plants.

Marijuana has recently been legalized by the federal government, so eventually this issue should disappear. Many others will spring up in its place.

One of the more recent challenges has been the large number of overdose deaths in Surrey, throughout B.C. and across Canada. Surrey Fire Department vehicles have been carrying naloxone kits and firefighters have kept many people alive because of their availability, particularly in public places like the former homeless camp on 135A Street in the Whalley strip area. Sadly, these kits have been of limited success when people overdose at home. Often, it is too late by the time firefighters and other first responders are called.

This overdose problem has become a very significant challenge for firefighters, and it has taken an emotional toll on them as they see healthy young people succumb to drug overdoses. It is also a challenge for society as a whole. How do we deal with this issue?

Garis has been much more than a team leader and working fire chief. He has been involved heavily in academic research, as an adjunct professor at the University of the Fraser Valley Centre for Public Safety and Criminal Justice Research.

Through this position, he has co-authored many studies on issues such as grow-ops, tall wood buildings, smoke alarms, occupational health and safety, firefighters and cancer, the fire risks of smart meters and many other topics.

He has also been a member of the Christian Regenhard Centre for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York; been on the faculty for part-time studies at BCIT and recently joined the B.C. Injury Research and Prevention Unit as an associate scientist emeritus.

His innovative leadership has positioned Surrey Fire Department as a leader among large fire departments, not only in B.C. and across Canada, but in many other parts of the world. Surrey residents have been very well-served by the fire department for many years, and his work has ensured that this high level of service and commitment – as well as a willingness to tackle new challenges head-on – continues.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News, as well as at