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Banff's fire chief retiring after 35 years

“I love the people I work with, I love helping people, but I do want to take some time for myself and my family. I want to take some time to enjoy life.”

BANFF – Banff’s fire chief is retiring after more than three decades at the local fire department.

Silvio Adamo will miss the job and the people he has worked with, but he said there’s been personal sacrifices and struggles in the role and it’s time to hand the reins over to someone else.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Adamo of retirement at the end of May following a distinguished career.

“I love the people I work with, I love helping people, but I do want to take some time for myself and my family. I want to take some time to enjoy life.”

Adamo rose through the ranks of the fire department over the past 35 years from a paid on-call volunteer to becoming deputy fire chief in 2004 and fire chief three years later.

Before joining the fire department in 1988, he worked at the Banff Centre, starting as an apprentice plumber in 1984 and working his way up to maintenance supervisor and associate director of facilities.

“I worked with a number of fellas up at the Banff Centre who were on the fire department and they were always talking about how neat it was, responding and helping people,” he said.

“They were doing recruitment and I said I’d love to get involved … and well, the rest I guess is history.”

Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno said Adamo’s dedication to the Banff community has gone beyond the call of duty, adding his passion for this job over the past three-and-a-half decades has been an inspiration.

Whether it be fire, flood, or more recently the COVID-19 pandemic, she said Adamo has worked tirelessly to protect Banff residents and visitors as fire chief and director of protective services.

“We want him to know the community has never taken for granted any of the personal sacrifices he has made in order to serve us so wholeheartedly,” she said.

DiManno said the fire chief has been recognized across the province for his proactive and multi-agency partner initiatives in emergency preparedness.

“From emergency management to urban-interface fire, Silvio has positioned our community well should we be faced with a local emergency situation,” she said. 

“He has also positioned us well going into the future because you can see his dedication and passion reflected in the fire department team that he has cultivated and mentored.”

In a profession traditionally measured by toughness and presenting a stoic front, DiManno said Adamo has been instrumental in building a culture of resilience among fire department members.

“Of note, he developed a sustainable format to ensure post-incident debriefs are conducted following particularly traumatic responses,” she said.

“This care and attention for his members again goes beyond his professional relationships with them, he has also put tremendous effort into supporting their personal circumstances too.”

The span of Adamo’s career has many highlights, including his hard work to nurture a culture of family and trust within the Banff fire service.

“That is one of the things I’m really proud of, is that we created a culture of family,” he said, noting there is an open door police and everything they do as a department is a team effort.

“There’s always an outlying culture of family within the fire service but we really focused on that and making the fire hall welcoming, not only to the members but their families.”

This culture has played a role in the longevity of firefighters within the department and the successful recruitment of new members.

Banff’s fire department is made up of 26 volunteer and three full-time members and Adamo said the fire department is a tight-knit community.

“Our longevity is remarkable. It’s not normal or common in the fire world, especially on our composite paid on-call volunteer system we have,” he said, noting several members recently received a Fire Services Exemplary Service Medal – which recognizes fire service members who have served for 20-plus years, 10 of which have been served in the performance of duties involving potential risks.

“And then we’ve got some great depth coming up the ranks, even with our last recruit class which is now on three years, we’ve only lost two out of the 10 – and that was because one moved to Vancouver Island and the other became a full-time firefighter in Calgary recently.”

Specifically, Adamo led the creation of a health and wellness program to take care of the department’s members, starting with a fitness, nutrition and team-building program followed by a mental health program long before such programs became popular.

“We’re making sure we’re taking care of our members,” said Adamo, noting firefighters work so closely together and depend on each other in times of crisis and high risk.

“I know when I first started and the terrible things that I saw, there was no program other than dark humour to try to cope, which wasn’t a very good mechanism at all.”

Through training and education, the fire department has built up an internal critical incident stress management peer support team.

“Those days when we used to sit around in a circle and talk about the incident and our feelings, the latest information and research suggests that that’s not maybe the best way to deal with these things, that it should be more on the peer-to-peer side,” said Adamo.

“We have a lot of folks trained to recognize the signs and symptoms and keep an eye on each other and make sure we’re there for each other, to support each other.”

This program was expanded to include partners of fire department members, who are brought in at least once a year for sessions as part of a support network.

“We talk about making sure that they understand what the signs and symptoms of critical incident stress are,” said Adamo. “They are with their partners and they see them more than we do, so they can pick up on those nuances of changes in behaviour of attitude or sleep patterns or eating patterns.”

Faced with seeing their parents race out of the door on an emergency call at any time of the day or the night, the children of fire department members can also be deeply affected and traumatized.

Adamo was instrumental in setting up a program for children of members as well – believed to be the first program of its kind in Canada when created about a decade ago.

What initially prompted Adamo on this was when a child of a firefighter accidentally heard something come across the pager.

“There was some information that was shared across a pager, which shouldn’t have happened but occasionally does, and then the child asked their parent what does that mean,” he said.

“That triggered me to say we really need to expand our program to include kids … We realized they do worry about their parents.”

Now that he is leaving, Adamo looks back with pride on the expansion of the Town of Banff’s FireSmart and wildfire preparedness programs, including incentive programs such as the combustible roof, conifer tree and rooftop sprinklers.

“I’ve spoken at conferences about our incentive programs because they are very unique. It’s great that we are able to lead in that regard because wildfire is our No. 1 risk,” he said.

Emergency management is one of Adamo’s biggest passions, and he has been instrumental in updating emergency programs and plans in Banff.

“Rolling that education out throughout our municipal organization and then engaging all of our agencies and partners, it’s taken a lot of effort, but we’ve got an outstanding emergency management program because of it,” he said.

Planning to stay with Canada Task Force 2 incident management team after his retirement, Adamo is also working with the Town of Canmore on regional emergency management for large-scale events.

A proposed bylaw to create a Bow Valley regional emergency management advisory committee and a Bow Valley regional emergency management agency is before Banff’s governance and finance committee for discussion on May 23.

“We’ve developed a better relationship with the Town of Canmore when it comes to emergency management,” said Adamo.

“We continue to build that relationship and build capacity and support each other in much more efficient and effective ways – that’s been a real passion for me.”

During his time in the department – which is equipped with 1,500 and 1,050 GPM pumpers, a rescue truck, a 75-foot aerial ladder truck and the Jaws of Life – Adamo has seen the number of call outs reach record numbers as Banff National Park now hosts more than four million visitors.

Call volumes have more than tripled to a record-breaking 714 by the end of 2022, up from the previous record of 622 calls in 2017.

“By far the biggest component of our job is medical and rescue,” said Adamo.

“We cover a large stretch of road and we go to a lot of motor vehicle accidents.”

Structure fires make up a relatively small portion of the call-outs, but there have been some big fire calls during Adamo’s time on the department, most notably when the Mount Norquay ski lodge burned to the ground in the 1990s and the Mount Royal Hotel caught fire in 2016.

“There’s also been a number of residential fires and what I like to think is because of the way we respond and how we respond, we stop them from getting big,” said Adamo.

“It’s so important to get in there as quickly as possible, knock it down, control it, contain it to that area, hopefully we always try to contain the fire to the room of origin if we can.”

Years of trauma from the job and more recently the stress of navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic, however, have taken their toll on Adamo.

He said the pandemic changed the face of how organizations look at emergency management.

“When there’s a wildfire coming down the valley, 99.9 per cent of the people are going to say, ‘we need to get out of the way, we need to do everything we can to stop it,’ but not in the case of the pandemic,” he said.

“It was so divisive and it brought out, I think, at times the worst of people, and at times I was losing faith in mankind, honestly.”

What’s next for Adamo?

The avid mountain biker and road rider has bought himself a gravel bike that he is setting up for bike packing and touring.

He’d love to bike-pack New Zealand or other areas of the globe to see the world at a slower pace from a bicycle.

“I am going to try to find the old happy-go-lucky Silvio that I knew, that didn't have the weight of the world on his shoulders and feeling responsible,” he said.

“It’s self-imposed to some degree, but I feel responsible for the wellbeing of our community and I’ve taken that commitment seriously for a lot of years.”

With the appointment of Russ Geyer as fire chief and a team of dedicated members, including deputy fire chiefs Mike Geisler and Keri Martens, DiManno said the fire department is in good hands moving forward.

“As we reach the end of the Adamo era, we know it will be a huge loss to the organization and to the community,” said the mayor.

“But we also know the strong legacy he leaves behind will guide and continue to protect us into the future.”

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