Firetrucks had always been a big part of Cliff Surrett’s life.
Whether it was during his more than 40 years in the fire service, which included 30 years serving as chief of the Brighton & Barton Volunteer Fire Department in Digby County.
Or whether it was in the summers when he’d drive the ladder truck in the Scallop Days parade, accompanied, of course, by his furry companion Foxy, his dog.
Firetrucks and Surrett went hand-in-hand.
And so it was fitting that on Wednesday, April 17, as family, friends and firefighters gathered at the Brighton-Barton Fire Hall for a celebration of Surrett’s life – he passed away on April 5 – that he would be taken there in firefighting style.
A procession of 18 fire trucks and other vehicles from numerous Digby County fire departments, with firefighters onboard, escorted Surrett’s ashes to the ceremony.
Except for the sounds of engines, a respectful silence permeated as the trucks took this meaningful ride with the fire chief – their lights flashing, their sirens silent. A touching contrast to the urgency with which firetrucks normally rush to a scene.
In this moment, Surrett was everyone’s fire chief – you were here for us, now we are here for you.
Adding to the poignancy was an RCMP member, who stood nearby saluting the trucks as they passed. Other highway traffic pulled off to the side of the road as the firetrucks passed by, a further show of respect.
Ralph Cummings was a firefighting colleague and a close friend. He described Surrett as someone who would step up for any social event, including rolling up his sleeves to cook for others.
Cummings, who is the president of the Digby Fire Department, says the Brighton & Barton and Digby fire departments worked well together. Surrett made such an impact with his leadership and his involvement that years ago the Digby Fire Department made him an honourary member of their department.
“He had his own key, he could come and go when he wanted to. He was treated just like another member,” said Cummings.
Being made an honourary member was a rare occurrence, but Surrett had earned the distinction. It just made sense when the idea was raised at a meeting of the department, Cummings said.
“We had another guy who was an honourary member, but that was probably around 45 years ago,” he said. “Cliff was always around. We said it was a good way to show our appreciation and love for him. He was the first honourary member in my 35 years with the department.”
Cummings recalled how Surrett would open the back door of the firehall but it was Foxy who would come running into the meeting room first, greeting everyone.
“We would all know cliff was on his way,” he said. “He’s definitely going to be missed. He was a good guy to have around.”
While Surrett, 68, devoted his time to the fire service, he was also devoted to his family. He and his wife Dale were married for 31 years.
His obituary says he enjoyed playing washer toss and cards, riding his ATV and spending time at his camp. He was also an avid hunter.
On the sea in his younger years he worked as a lobster fisherman. Later on land he worked in the woods logging. The last of his working years were spent at Lewis Moulding & Wood Specialties Ltd.
“Cliff had a big heart and would have given his shirt off his back to anybody in need,” his obituary reads. “But there is one thing to be said, you could always count on Cliff and if he didn’t want to do something, he’d tell you.”
He spoke his mind and was a little stubborn, his obituary said. But he was loved and admired.
Digby Mayor Ben Cleveland shared his thoughts.
“Being an effective fire chief means you need to be an effective leader, have the ability to organize and effectively administer the operations of a volunteer fire department and have the drive, passion to serve your community,” he said. “Cliff had all the above abilities, doing it in his style.
“Recently at a local event I was pointing out all of the fire departments present,” the mayor said. “I inadvertently missed that the Brighton & Barton Department was present. He came right to the podium and pointed it out. He was proud of his department.”
Municipality of Digby Warden Jimmy MacAlpine also had great admiration for the fire chief.
“I’ve seen him be a leader of fire services in the municipality. He devoted a lot of his energy and time to seeing that his community in the Brighton-Barton area has always had adequate fire service,” MacAlpine said, noting the fire department recently had a new fire hall built through the leadership of Surrett and others – but especially Surrett.
He commended Surrett for the work he did with young firemen and for doing his utmost to encourage people to volunteer.
“He always had the best interest of the fire department, first and foremost, in mind,” MacAlpine said. Whether it was training, mutual aid or something else, he said Surrett’s efforts were always aimed at the betterment of firefighters and the community.
“I’m quite sure that everybody that’s involved with the fire department is feeling this loss,” said MacAlpine. “I don’t know who’s going to step forward to be the chief but, like you said, they’re going to have big boots to fill.”