A little over two weeks ago, on January 7, the Fire Chief of Crossfield, Ben Niven, celebrated 25 years of service as a firefighter. In a little over a week's time he will be retiring from his position as head of the fire department. His time as a firefighter in Crossfield is ending in many ways very similar to how it all began - with family.

It was during the Christmas season in 1997, when his brother, a Crossfield firefighter himself, had mentioned to Niven that the department was looking for volunteers. At the time, Niven was pursuing a career in business and marketing, so it seemed almost counter-intuitive for him to pursue something in the first responder field, but he did so anyways, revelling in the idea that he might be able to continue building camaraderie with his brother.

"At that time, we did only three months of probation [as volunteer firefighters]. After that, I got a pager and had some pretty different calls out of the gate, [which] really tested me to see if it was something I could do for a long period of time," he said. "I started getting to enjoy being there and helping the residents."

When asked if there was ever a moment where he was regretful of choosing firefighting, especially since paid-on-call firefighters risk their lives with little monetary reward, Chief Niven was steadfast in his answer.

"Hearing the pager go off was a chance to go and help somebody. To go down and help somebody at their worst time and get them through something; just being able to hold somebody's hand and let them know that we're here for them; I've always wanted to be there to help people."

Just recently it was Chief Niven who was the incident response commander during the dozen-vehicle car pile-up near Crossfield in late December. Initially, there were calls that upwards of 100 cars were involved in the collisions. 

"As soon as I arrived on the scene [it was about] staying calm and collected. In these instances, you have to rely on [previous] experiences, keep focused, and make sure we have the resources there."

The fire hall and the department in Crossfield have seen much evolution since Chief Niven first came to the service. In the earlier days, Chief Niven remembers that Crossfield's fire department would respond to 80-90 calls for service a year, whereas now that number is well into the hundreds. Equipment has been upgraded and modernized and new faces have come to serve in the fire hall. But in his time as a firefighter, it's not just the operational changes that have been milestones for him. The fire hall is also the place where some of his most cherished and tender moments have also unfolded. Chief Niven happened to meet his wife Sherry in Crossfield's fire hall.

"She came in and was looking at moving into a first responder/rescue type position. She had an uncle that lives here in town and he said to come to check out our fire department," Chief Niven said. "She came down and walked in and I shook her hand, and I was just taken right there."

As his time draws to a close as Fire Chief, Niven said that whoever his successor is, they will have to be adaptable and willing to learn.

"Times change, technology changes and training changes. This isn't just a job. We have so many volunteer fire departments throughout the province, and they're all there for the same reasons: to help their neighbour and that is the philosophy," Chief Niven said. "But listening is also important, you have got to be able to take that as a chief and learn from it. 

Although Chief Niven wishes nothing for the best for his successor and the fire department, he doesn't deny it will be difficult come February 1 when he returns to life as an ordinary citizen. He will continue to work in his other career, as the role of Fire Chief was never a full-time position, but one that he was able to do in tandem with his other work. But as he looks around his nearly empty office, sporting a vest with the Crossfield Fire Department insignia on it, the emotion in his voice is palpable. 

"We are a family here. We've been a big family for a lot of years. It's hard to believe it's over."

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