Debbie Gavin was never surprised by the late-night shrill of her phone and the rustling of blankets next to her that usually followed.
As the wife of a firefighter for 30 years, it was something she got used to and usually expected.
One night, in particular, the call came for her husband, 65-year-old Harris Gavin, a longtime member of the Westport Fire Department, and the call was followed by the familiar rustling.
This time, however, Harris took off for the fire hall without his pants. Debbie quickly hollered at her husband and he paused long enough to quickly haul on a pair before rushing off.
“He’s a very dedicated man,” she said.
This year will mark the 30th anniversary of the year Harris decided to become a firefighter. Normally it's a joyous occasion for any firefighter, but this year has been rife with challenges for him.
Recently, Harris, Debbie and 10 other firefighters were removed from the Westport Fire Department by the town council after the town had a dispute with Fire Chief Derrick Rice, and the members backed Rice.
The group alleges they were improperly removed from the department and have filed an application in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court to have the decision overturned.
“It’s heartbreaking it was taken from him,” said Carolyn Jacobs, another longtime member of the department in Westport.
In 1990 the local fire chief in Wolfville, N.S., was making his rounds and looking for recruits, and Harris decided to sign up.
Taking on that level of public service was something Harris had been thinking about for some time before he joined.
He eventually served with that department for nine years, achieving the ranks of captain and lieutenant.
“I wanted to help the community,” he said of his reasons for signing on.
Soon after, he had his first fire call, on New Year’s Eve.
Harris remembers his fresh set of bunker gear and its bright yellow colour as he strapped it on and headed to the scene.
“It was yellow when I went, but it wasn’t when I got back,” he said.
Harris and Debbie moved to Westport in 1999 after he went to work at the refinery in Come By Chance.
Almost immediately, he got involved with the local volunteer fire department in Westport.
“I enjoyed it, and it was something I volunteered for,” said Harris. “It was a way to give back to the community.”
The impact he had on firefighters there was almost immediate. During his two decades with the Westport Fire Department, Harris served as fire chief for several years and was a key driver in fundraisers and other department initiatives.
He led an increased push to replace the department’s aging pumper truck several years ago, as well as the fundraising for the department’s current paging system and sets of bunker gear, along with self-contained breathing apparatus.
“(Harris) had a lot of years' experience and we’ve all learned from him,” said former fire chief Derrick Rice.
Rice first served with Harris when the latter joined the Westport department in the late 1990s, and again after Rice returned from a short stint in Alberta several years later.
“Harris is a good person,” he said. “He loved being on the fire department.”
Harris also served as the department’s training officer. He enjoyed helping mould firefighters and learning the new techniques that come with training.
Stay in any field for three decades and you’re going to see some changes, both to protocols and equipment. Harris was driven to learn everything he could about the profession.
“I really loved that, setting up and explaining everything. Teaching,” he said.
Jacobs said Harris was adamant about making sure everyone involved with the department — firefighters and their significant others — was trained in how to fight a fire.
“He wanted us to be the best we could be, which is what we were,” she said. “We were all trained, women and men.”
While Harris, Jacobs and some of the others are no longer part of the department as their case goes to court, their hope is that the department will give their beloved former longtime member the recognition three decades of fire service deserves.
Harris is fighting bone cancer after it returned following a brief remission, and some days are better than others, he said.
Despite the struggle, Harris says he still has something to give to the fire department should he and the other former members be reinstated.
While attending live fire scenes could be out of the question for him in the future, he still wishes to offer other support services and continue to train fresh and experienced firefighters alike.
“I’m very proud of him,” said Debbie. “He would still be there if he could.”
Nicholas Mercer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Central Voice