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On Island Profile: Brian Chapman


Sept. 7, 2005 – Deputy Fire Chief Brian Chapman, 52, surveyed the scene at the Sept. 2 Meada's Mall fire in Cruz Bay, his Fire Services t-shirt smudged with soot from after a night on the job.
Almost a week later, sitting in his office at the Robert O'Connor Sr. Fire Station, he said he enjoys the adrenalin rush that comes when fighting fires. "The excitement," he said.
St. John firefighters don't see all that much activity, though. He said Cruz Bay firefighters make only seven to 10 runs a month, with about seven the figure for Coral Bay.
The island has only a few structural fires a year, with most calls responses to medical emergencies and car crashes, he said.
Chapman, discussing the few spectacular fires that have hit the island, puts the St. John Lumber Co. fire in the mid-1980s at the top of the list. In that fire, paint cans exploded and lumber crackled as the building went up in flames. Two others also make his top list – the 1997 fire at Grumpy's Bar and Restaurant and Kaleidoscope Video that just about leveled the building and severely damaged the one adjacent, as well as an earlier fire that demolished 2 ½ homes in Enighed.
Since he's been deputy chief, a fire at Pusser's store in Wharfside Village and a fire at Caneel Bay Resort's laundry facility, both in 1999, top his big event list, Chapman said.
"That's what happens when you don't have smoke detectors," he said of the Caneel Bay fire.
While Chapman likes the firefighting side of his job, he said he doesn't much care for the administrative duties. He said that aspect of the job is complicated by the fact that St. Thomas-based firefighters are sent to St. John to fill in when one of his regulars are sick. The St. Thomas firefighters then need rides out to the Coral Bay fire station if that's where the need lies.
"We never have an orderly transition from shift to shift," he said.
St. John has 40 firefighters on its suppression crews, he said. They work four shifts, with six people in Cruz Bay and four in Coral Bay. Two additional people serve on the fire prevention team doing things like inspecting businesses, issuing burn permits and educational outreach.
Chapman has been with Fire Services since 1979, coming up through the ranks to his current post. He actually retired two years ago, but after a month spent making repairs to his house and another month fixing up his boat, Chapman said all he had left to do was grow tomatoes and read books. So, he went back to his old job at Fire Services.
"I like the job," he said.
He and his wife, massage therapist Christine Chapman, arrived on St. John from his native Massachusetts in 1974 because the economy was bad and his parents, Joan and Kenneth Chapman, were building a house on St. John. The couple married 25 years ago and has a son, Erik, born in 1983. His father died in 2000, but his mother makes St. John her home for a good part of the year.
Like so many new arrivals, Chapman did this and that when he first arrived.
"I worked at the lumberyard, I worked at Caneel Bay, I worked at Cinnamon Bay, Maho Bay and the construction of the Boulon Center," he said, laughing as he ticked off five years worth of jobs.
The Chapmans then went off on a four-month trip to South America. When they returned, he found he had a choice of jobs. The V.I. National Park needed a lifeguard and Fire Services wanted him as a firefighter.
He said he plans to retire again when the Turnbull administration leaves office.
Chapman, a devoted fisherman, said he may resume the charter fishing business he operated in the early 1990s.
And he plans to spend the hottest of the summer months in Colorado, where he owns property. But, he'll be back on St. John for the other nine months of the year.
"This is home," he said.

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