They say that a uniform makes the man, but in the case of our Fire Chief, Mark Berney, the man makes the uniform. At six foot six he towers over most people, but his soft, friendly demeanor, immediately makes you warm up to his pleasant nature.
Born in Ajax, Ontario, Mark's father was a police officer, and his mother worked for the Ajax Pickering hospital. The family moved to Kirby, when Mark was young, but shortly thereafter, relocated to Newcastle.
Mark's mother became involved in local politics, and worked her way up to become president of their local riding. Mark was looking for a part time job, and when he heard the town had applied for a grant to clean up local cemeteries, he immediately applied and was given an opportunity. "It was great, working on a crew," Mark explained. “We had to clean up all the cemeteries and creeks in the area. It was certainly different, but a lot of fun."
Mark's true love was hockey and while growing up he became a rink operator, looking after the ice at the local arena. "We heard the Zamboni in Bowmanville blew a motor, and they found a tractor to pull the ice cleaning machine." Mark explained. "The fellow driving it, ran into a wall and was immediately let go. I found out about the problem, and because I could drive a tractor, they gave me the job.”
The oldest of three children, Mark had a pretty interesting childhood, and when it came time to find a job he applied with a company in Brantford, owned by his uncle. The company made valves for liquid and gas, used mostly in the Darlington Nuclear Plant. He later graduated to the position of computer programing operator.
In 1985 he saw a posting for volunteer firefighters. "My dad, being a police officer, has always given me a special place for first responders, and the thought of being a firefighter was very appealing," Mark replied.
The new position meant returning to his adopted hometown of Newcastle, and three years later he was hired as a fulltime firefighter, in the Clarington/Bowmanville area. There are a total of five stations in the municipality, each with about 25 volunteers and several fulltime employees.
Life for the firefighter was great, working 12 hour shifts, on and off and as the area grew, so did the needs of the community service. People were hired, trucks were purchased, and in 1994 Mark was promoted to Captain. This meant leading a crew and working out of Courtice.
It was during this time that Ontario Power Group started producing electricity, and the demand on the firefighting units suddenly increased dramatically. Clarington had six months to build a station, with no extension, as they had to be ready when Darlington Nuclear Generating Station went online.
I laughed when Mark explained how the contractor was hustling to get every detail completed, and personally hung all the mirrors in the new fire station. Unfortunately he was a foot shorter than Mark, and the tall firefighter had to sit on a chair to see his face in a mirror.
The area grew to 125 volunteers and 44 full time staff, and in 2005 Mark was promoted to Deputy Fire Chief in Clarington. Mark thoroughly enjoyed his career and worked hard at it. As the years progressed, he felt he was ready for a new challenge.
In 2016, he had heard of a possible opening in Port Perry as Fire Chief, a position which interested him very much. He was enjoying a bit of relaxation at the cottage with his wife, and some of their six children, when his wife Michele, an admin assistant to the Oshawa Fire Chief, asked Mark about the job in Port Perry.
"I checked my notes and saw the closing for applications for the position was at 4:15. I checked my watch and saw I had about an hour to get my name in," Mark chuckled.
He ran out to his truck, the only device with WI-FI and spent the next 60 minutes completing the submission, and submitting it on time. "I was really relieved when Andrea Short confirmed they received my application."
Mark was awarded the position and the rest is history. He is dedicating a large percentage of his time to customizing the military policies around post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), a major cause of illness among first responders. "There were issues in firefighters, similar to those the military faced with their combat troops," Mark explained, and he started detailed training programs for the men and women under his charge.
We currently have between 60 and 65 volunteer firefighters in Port Perry and Caesarea. There are four full time firefighters, as well as a fire prevention officer and admin staff. The firefighting fleet consists of three pumpers, two tankers, one heavy rescue truck, two light rescue vehicles, and a 4x4 utility vehicle.
"One of the things I am very proud of is our assembly time (the time from when the call comes in until the truck is out the driveway) is down to six minutes. We can still improve, but are extremely efficient," Mark said proudly.
I asked the Chief, what the future held in store for him. "I love Port Perry," he responded immediately. "My goal is to continue modernizing our systems and our operations by utilizing technology. Training is a big part of the mandate, but most of all, being as efficient as possible, ensuring the safety of our residents."
Congratulations to Chief Mark Berney and his team of firefighters, who make it possible for the rest of us to sleep at night.