KINGSVILLE — It was a routine call for the Kingsville Fire Department — a small kitchen fire early Tuesday morning in Cottam.
Firefighters responded, the fire was extinguished and they returned to the firehall.
Later that morning, Kingsville Fire Chief John Quennell dropped by the Cottam station to thank the volunteer firefighters for a job well done and also acknowledge a key component to any successful small-town department — the large turnout of volunteers. As many as 12 volunteers assembled at the hall at 7:30 a.m. to fight the small blaze.
“It’s that effort we want to acknowledge, that we need to acknowledge, because I’m only as good as the firefighters we have here,” he said. “These are the people responsible for the image of the Kingsville Fire Department.”
Quennell, who has an extensive career in firefighting, joined the Kingsville Fire Department last fall as a deputy chief after former chief Chuck Parson took a leave of absence soon after a September rescue of three American boaters that went badly off course.
He became the chief in January after Parsons was dismissed.
Quennell was the deputy chief of the Lakeshore Fire Department from 2011 to 2019 and served with the Windsor Fire and Rescue Service for 32 years before retiring as an assistant chief in 2010. Between the Windsor and Lakeshore posts, he also worked with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) on border security.
Firefighting is in Quennell’s blood and he still remembers going to his first fire on McKay Avenue in Windsor — a fire similar to the one Kingsville firefighters attended Tuesday morning.
“If you look at it later on in your career it was such a nothing fire but it was so big to you when you first start,” he said.
Quennell, 62, did not enter firefighting as a result of some longstanding dream of riding at the back of a fire truck or pulling a child out of a burning building.
In 1978 he was working for Windsor’s parks and recreation department at the Forest Glade Arena after being laid off at Chrysler. A group of Windsor firefighters — none of whom Quennell knew — was on the ice.
“I was driving a Zamboni … and the fire department guys were playing hockey, they said have you applied to the fire department because the deadline is tomorrow.”
He applied, got the job and fell into a line of work he said was perfectly aligned with his talents as a team player. Quennell played competitive lacrosse with the Windsor Warlocks as well as travel baseball.
“The team aspect is so important in any of the paramilitary organizations, police, fire, EMS. If you have that background of support for one another, one teammate to another, it goes a long way.
“If you’re an individual person who just does things individually, it may not be the place for you,” he said.
There is no better feeling going into a good hot fire, putting it out, knocking the fire down, saving the structure, saving the people, saving their contents. It’s a good feeling to do your job.
Quennell, married with three adult children, said being a “team manager or coach” is the biggest asset he brings to his new job. That ability was on display when the firefighters from the Cottam detachment came back to the station.
“Hopefully after I left, they said, wow, that’s neat. I don’t think we’ve had a chief that’s done that for us. Maybe they have, maybe they haven’t, but that’s my way of wanting to deal with people, give them some praise, pat them on the back when they do a good job, but also have a foot there to kick them in the butt if they need it,” he said. Just like any good coach.
“It meant a lot,” said one firefighter of the Cottam visit.
After Parsons took a leave of absence — and with Quennell new to the department — the town commissioned a report into the state of the department .The report by Amherstburg Fire Chief Bruce Montone assigned no blame for the rescue but did mention morale problems, specifically at the north detachment in Cottam, where firefighters felt they were being treated as “second-class citizens.”
To signal a fresh beginning, Quennell has asked the men and women of his department to design a new shoulder flash. A working group of six was established — three from Cottam station, three from Kingsville — and working with a graphic designer, two possible designs are now being considered.
“He’s a motivator. His people skills are excellent. He just a great, all-round leader,” said Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Dean.
Quennell also played a role in citations of bravery being issued to the three Kingsville firefighters most closely involved in the rescue of the three American boaters.
Last September, the fire department sent a rescue boat with two firefighters aboard, brothers Jeremy and Jeffrey McHardy, to aid three boaters whose craft was adrift in Lake Erie and headed toward a stone breakwall. A third firefighter, Matthew Stewart, waded into the lake and pulled one of the boaters ashore.
During the rescue the fire department boat capsized, forcing the McHardy brothers to cling to the craft which ultimately drifted ashore.
“If not for their ability to stay calm and rely on their experience and training, there may have been a different outcome,” Quennell said late last year.
The new fire chief said working with a volunteer fire department is a “different animal” from working with full-time firefighters. He said he gained valuable experience for his new job as Kingsville chief from his time in Lakeshore, which also has a volunteer department.
“They do the very same job, they fight fires. Fires are no different from full-time to a volunteer. It’s just how the firefighters assemble, how do they get their training in,” he said.
Normally, volunteer fire departments operate on a 3:1 hiring ratio which sets out the number of volunteers needed — three — to ensure at least one volunteer shows up to fight the fire. Quennell said Kingsville, with 58 volunteer firefighters between the two detachments, has no problem with turnout and cited two recent fires in town where as many as 24 volunteers showed up at the station to fight the fires.
“The commitment from the firefighters themselves is amazing in the volunteer world. It doesn’t surprise me here the height of commitment the firefighters show.”
Quennell said there is no mystery why firemen and women love their work.
“There is no better feeling going into a good hot fire, putting it out, knocking the fire down, saving the structure, saving the people, saving their contents. It’s a good feeling to do your job.”
Quennell ‘respected and well-liked,’
former Windsor fire chief says
Former Windsor fire chief Dave Fields remembers first meeting John Quennell when they were firefighters at the Walker Road station.
The two hit it off and Fields became a mentor for the new firefighter.
“When you’re a rookie in the fire department they advise you to find a more senior person that you want to emulate … for some reason John picked me,” Fields said.
Fields left the Windsor Fire Service in 1981 and went to work with the Ontario Fire Marshal’s Office, later moving to the Nepean Fire Department to become deputy chief. He returned to Windsor to become chief in 1994 and retired in 2011.
Quennell was a fire captain when Fields returned to Windsor and during his tenure was promoted to assistant fire chief and put in charge of fire rescue, the largest division within the Windsor fire service.
“John never had to give an order. He would suggest or ask and people would just do it — he was well-respected and well-liked,” Fields said.
Windsor has had its share of big fires. Fields said it’s all hands on deck when a department is fighting a large blaze — with many of the top brass on the scene.
“If you’re the chief, you look down on the list of officers below you. When you see certain names and you have a lot of confidence that I’m not going to have to fix a lot of stuff.
“John was one of those … he just made good, solid firefighting decisions.”
Fields said he wasn’t surprised Quennell turned up at the Cottam station to thank his firefighters after putting out a routine kitchen fire.
“He’s very supportive of his people, very supportive, and he gets the support back because of that. With John, what you see is what you get.”
Fields said Kingsville made a good decision hiring Quennell.
“I think people need to know the quality of the person they have in charge right now.”