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Rob Patterson, Malahat fire chief, died while trying to help

Rob Patterson, chief of the Malahat Volunteer Fire Department and vocal advocate for improved safety on the crash-prone stretch of highway, died the way he lived his life: trying to help someone.
Malahat Volunteer Fire Department Chief Rob Patterson in 2013.

Rob Patterson, chief of the Malahat Volunteer Fire Department and vocal advocate for improved safety on the crash-prone stretch of highway, died the way he lived his life: trying to help someone.

Patterson, 53, was off duty and riding an ATV to help someone who was stuck in the snow on Monday when he went into medical distress. The cause of death has not yet been released.

“He was, like in life, being Rob and he was out helping somebody,” said Conrad Cowan, a friend of Patterson’s and his boss in his role as public safety manager of the Cowichan Valley Regional District.

Members of Patterson’s own fire department and paramedics he knew well were deployed to try to save his life.

“It’s extremely difficult for them,” Cowan said. “We’re going to be providing critical incident stress [support] for them.”

Patterson’s colleagues are in shock as he seemed fit and healthy just a few days ago, Cowan said.

Neighbouring fire departments are covering for any members who need time off, he said.

Patterson has been a stalwart of Malahat Fire for 19 years, starting as a rookie and working his way up through the ranks. He became chief six years ago while also maintaining his day job as an electrician.

“He was unquestionably a leader from the heart,” Cowan said.

Patterson’s wife Tanya is deputy chief for Malahat Fire, his son Nick is a firefighter, as was his son Cameron before recently moving to the Interior.

Cody Tetley and his family lived down the road from the Pattersons on Spectacle Lake for 16 years. Tetley became friends with Cameron and Nick.

Tetley saw how involved the family was in the fire department and decided to become a volunteer firefighter. Patterson was his training officer, a patient teacher who was passionate about passing on his knowledge, Tetley said. “Being in the fire department we all became very close to him. He would go out of his way to teach you anything and everything he knew. He was a great role model. All of us loved him because it was an easy environment to learn from him.”

Tetley said the Patterson family was heavily involved in local fundraisers.

Patterson has been among the first on the scene of countless crashes on the Trans-Canada Highway. He grew frustrated at witnessing the carnage, the lives lost in head-on crashes and began advocating for median barriers. Patterson didn’t mince words when expressing that another death could have been prevented if safety improvements were made.

He pointed to statistics that showed fatality rates dropped in areas where barriers were installed.

“He saw how many deaths were happening, how many accidents were happening,” Tetley said. “That made him want to speak out more and more. He was very persistent, he spoke his mind and he wasn’t afraid to. That’s one of the reasons Rob was so liked; he wasn’t worried what someone thought about his opinion.”

Patterson welcomed the Ministry of Transportation’s announcement in July that $34 million will be dedicated to adding three kilometres of median barriers and expanding the Trans-Canada to four lanes through Malahat Village. However, speaking to the Times Colonist after the funding announcement, he still pressed the provincial government to “finish the job” from one end of the corridor to the other. “Twin it, divide it, make it safe,” he said. “I wish to God the Olympics were in Nanaimo because it would be a moot point. The Malahat would be ripped out, redone, no questions asked.”

Langford Fire Chief Bob Beckett said Patterson’s efforts to improve the highway have had a big impact. “Clearly the work that he’s done in co-operation with others, including Langford in our initiative to address our portion of the Trans-Canada Highway, has resulted in lives being saved,” Beckett said.

“For that alone we should be grateful and thankful for his community service.”

Patterson was dedicated to his role as fire chief, Beckett said. “He put his heart and soul into it, that’s for sure.”

He also did much more beyond that, Beckett said. “All of his social networking speaks about volunteerism and doing something for your community. Although most people saw him in the media as this advocate, behind that was an extremely passionate individual, not only about the fire service but about serving one’s community.

Beckett said Patterson showed leadership in his roles as the Vancouver Island representative in the B.C. Fire Chiefs’ Association and past president of the Vancouver Island Firefighters Association.

Patterson was also outspoken about the increased workload facing volunteer firefighters, who are called out more and more to medical emergencies and car crashes.

“He did feel that we’re over taxed,” Tetley said. “For what you’re giving to the community there’s no break.”

Beckett said volunteers like the Patterson family are crucial to firefighting across the country. About 75 per cent of firefighters across the country are volunteers.

Beckett said rural communities such as Malahat can face challenges in staffing fire departments. “Obviously, like many, many rural communities there’s not a lot of people to draw on. It’s not like Langford, we’ve got 40,000 people.”

Ron Beck, chief of the neighbouring Mill Bay Fire Department, said Patterson gave a lot to his job as chief while also working as an electrician.

Beck said that he and Patterson were often called upon to respond to the same incidents.

“He was very passionate with his fire department, with their progression, in training,” Beck said. “He was just an awesome guy and a great friend.”

Colwood Mayor Carol Hamilton grew up with Patterson, as their families had neighbouring cabins on the Cowichan River. Hamilton spent many summers with Patterson, his brother and two sisters, on rope swings, fishing and floating on the river. As Hamilton and Patterson grew up to have families of their own, they’d still see each other at the cabins. Hamilton said she was shocked at news of the death.

Lloyd Haskell, who lives in the Malahat area, called Patterson “a neighbourhood saint” and said he was like the “big brother” of the community.

Donations are being collected for the family to help with funeral costs and allow them to take time off work to cope with the loss.

“We just wanted to help them because they had done so much for the community,” Tetley said.