Interim Fire Chief Hits Ground Running

St. Johnsbury Interim Fire Chief Christopher Olsen, front, during a promotion ceremony held at the St. Johnsbury Fire Station on Aug. 28, 2021. Behind Olsen are, from left, newly promoted Captain Philip Hawthorne and newly promoted Acting Duty Officers Andrew Ruggles and Richard Kahan. (Photo By Todd Wellington)

There’s been a big change at the St. Johnsbury Fire Department.

And his name is Christopher J. Olsen.

Olsen, who hails from Cape Cod, Mass., has been living in a camper and working on a three-month contract as St. Johnsbury’s Interim Fire Chief while the town searches for a permanent replacement for former chief, Jon Bouffard.

But Olsen’s approach to the job has been far from that of a temporary caretaker.

He has been responding to calls day and night, lobbying the town manager to add a Lieutenant position to the department, working on a plan to have a paramedic in the ranks, partnering with St. Johnsbury Academy to re-start the student firefighter intern program, and on Saturday afternoon he put the most powerful tool in his toolbox on public display.

Positivity.

“You have a wonderful fire department,” said Olsen with his distinct Massachusetts accent as he kicked off a firefighter promotion ceremony in the apparatus bay at the St. Johnsbury Fire Station on Main Street. “These people are just amazing people.”

Then, with his Rosary bracelet dangling from under the sleeve of his dress uniform, Olsen delivered an inspirational message laden with spirituality, philosophy, energy, history, tradition and even more positivity.

“I’m so excited to be here and present to you your officers which is just wonderful,” said Olsen to the audience that gathered to witness the promotions of firefighter Philip Hawthorne to the rank of captain, and firefighters, Andrew Ruggles and Richard Kahan to leadership positions as acting duty officers.

After the pledge of allegiance and a moment of silence to honor those who have been lost, Olsen led the room in prayer by reciting a Sept 10, 2001 prayer by New York City Fire Department Chaplain Mychal Judge.

Fr. Judge died the next day during the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

“Never a boring a day on this job,” said Olsen, as he spoke in a serious, somber tone. “You do what God called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of the other. And you do your job, which is a mystery and a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig what God is calling you to do … Keep supporting each other, love each other, work together …”

Then, he instantly morphed into a kind of Professor of Firefighting explaining in great detail the meaning behind the eight points of the “Maltese Cross” which is included in the firefighter insignia on their hats and uniforms.

“Each point means something to us,” said Olsen as he went on to highlight the meaning of each one with virtues such as professionalism, perseverance and observation.

“Observation is very important to us,” said Olsen. “We in the fire service talk about situational awareness all the time. We need to know where we are all the time. In the firehouse, as well as in a fire …”

He also explained the “bugles” sewn onto firefighters’ uniforms and what each of those symbols represents. According to Olsen, they include leadership, management, role model, mentor and the fifth bugle — worn by the fire chief — which represents being an agent of change.

Then came the pinning of the captain rank on firefighter Hawthorne and the honoring of firefighters Ruggles and Kahan, who stood in front of the crowd in their dress uniforms.

“Captain Hawthorne,” said Olsen. “Outstanding. I love it. You look wonderful today … Don’t these guys look good? It’s just incredible. “

Olsen closed the ceremony with some words of advice for all three honorees.

“You will have failures. You will have successes. But we need to learn from both,” said Olsen. “Everything that we do, our good Lord put us on this earth to do. So, there’s always good in whatever we do. Even if we make a mistake, there’s a reason for it … Be positive. Be very positive.”

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