Person of the Week
John Divis: Where’s the Fire?
After 50 years serving as a volunteer firefighter, John Divis remains an active member of the Chester Hose Company. (Photo courtesy of John Divis )
John Divis didn’t want to, but he has had to change his Monday night schedule. And that’s quite a change. Monday nights until recently were fire department meetings, and John has been going to those meetings for the 50 years he has served as a volunteer firefighter with the Chester Hose Company.
COVID-19 has changed that. There are no Monday night meetings of the Chester Hose company now.
“It’s strange,” John admits.
The volunteer firefighters, to be sure, are responding to fires and emergencies as they always do.
First Selectman Lauren Gister recently recognized John’s outstanding 50 years of volunteer service.
“John loves the town he was born and raised in and I believe the town loves him back,” she wrote.
John’s father had once been a volunteer firefighter in Chester, but John recalls it was a neighbor, the late Bruce Rayner, who suggested he might consider joining the group. John, who was 20 at the time, admits he was unsure.
“I was skeptical at first, but I knew some of the people, so I just kept going,” he says.
And going, and going, and going for 50 years.
“I like going to help people, helping neighbors; it’s a rewarding feeling,” he says.
John chuckles as he recalls a meeting, he believes it was of the Board of Finance, where one of the members, relatively new to the town, remarked that there were no salaries listed for the fire fighters. When he was told they were all volunteers, the board member’s first reaction was incredulity.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” John recalls.
John has served the department over the last five decades in many different capacities, including as both chief and president of the organization. He explains the difference between the two leadership positions is that the president handles many of the administrative functions.
“The idea is to take some of the burden of the chief,” he says.
For the last 35 years, John has been an engineer responsible for truck maintenance and keeping all equipment in shape. For much of that time he was chief engineer but stepped back several years ago.
“Time to give someone else a turn,” he says.
“He was fantastic; he has kept that machinery running for the last 30 years. He must have saved the taxpayers a tremendous amount,” says James Gryzbowski, Jr., the current fire chief.
In addition, John has served as a lieutenant as well as an assistant chief, advised the junior fire department, and driven a fire truck. In fact, he still drives the truck.
The goal of firefighting, putting out the blaze, hasn’t changed, but John says there have been great changes in equipment since he began.
“The biggest thing is that safety has improved,” he says. “The protection is phenomenal.”
The gear the firefighters wear today is a three-layer protective outer coat.
“You can’t feel the heat. There is a vapor barrier; it is far superior,” he says.
Technology has also made improvements in things like finding blazes that are not visible, by using heat-seeking thermal cameras that can locate fire sources even within walls.
Just as significant as where things burn, John points out, is what burns. There are all kinds of new materials that go up in flames, among them various types of plastic and composite materials.
“It’s a new ball game. Every house has these types of materials,” he says, adding that they are more toxic and thus present added challenges to those fighting the blaze.
According to John, the firefighters can sometimes determine what kinds of substances are burning by looking at the color of the smoke.
Like many long-serving members of the Chester Hose Company, the fire that sticks in John’s memory was the 1976 blaze that completely consumed the Russell Jennings factory in the center of Chester. It took more than a day to put out the flames, some of which leapt 30 feet in the air.
“You could see it all night; it was so bright it looked like day,” John says.
Firefighters were particularly worried that embers from the fire would start additional fires in Chester.
“We went around looking for spot fires,” he recalls.
In Chester, there are many people who know John, a lifelong Chester resident, in another capacity. For 20 years he has been the foreman of the town’s Public Works Department. At the moment, he and his crew are finishing the work of making Chester Town Hall COVID-19 ready with the partitions, sanitizer, and other changes that COVID-19 demands.
“We don’t want an influx of cases when Town Hall opens,” he explains.
Reopening was scheduled for July 7.
Even after 50 years, John has no plans to retire from the hose company. It is, after all, a family thing. His wife, Julie Anne, is also a member and the Divis clan is represented in the junior division by the next generation with John and Julie Anne’s twin 18-year-old sons, John Jr., better known as J.D., and Parker.
That’s the way it goes in the hose company, according to chief Gryzbowski, explaining why generations stay with the department.
“It’s a simple word,” he says. “It’s family.”
For more information on the Chester Hose Company, visit chesterhosecompany.webs.com.