From “little station rat” to St. John Deputy Fire Chief, Winnie Powell has come a long way.
Powell, who was confirmed as St. John Deputy Fire Chief last month in the wake of former Deputy Fire Chief Brian Chapman’s retirement, has been involved with firefighting since the age of four, she explained.
“My dad, Winston Powell, was a firefighter,” said Powell. “I was a little station rat, crawling everywhere, on top of the trucks, getting myself in a lot of trouble.”
Powell’s desire to pursue firefighting as a profession did not kick in until later in her life, she explained.
“I wanted to go to college, make a lot of money and travel the world, that kind of thing,” said Powell. “Then I got involved as a certified nursing assistant, and I started helping people more. I hated working with computers, but I liked working with people.”
Interest in Public Safety
The St. John Deputy Fire Chief opted to take classes through the Department of Health, where she learned about public safety, hazmat and weapons of mass destruction.
“I just took classes along the way that interested me, and most everything I took was related to public safety,” said Powell, who also earned her EMT certification and was selected in 1997 to take the fire exam.
She graduated in 1998, when she joined the St. John Fire Department.
Powell fought her first fire with Chapman on St. Thomas, which was a positive experience, she explained.
“There was a car on fire, and it was totally engulfed,” said Pow-ell. “We came around the corner and saw a 20 foot high pillar of fire, and the car was parked right in front of an apartment building.”
Powell learned confidence and efficiency by fighting the fire alongside Chapman, she explained.
“Being able to work alongside him and learn techniques from him just built my confidence and made me pay attention to a lot of things fire safety-wise,” said Powell. “I also learned about being efficient and getting the job done, so the fire doesn’t spread and cause more damage to surrounding property.”
Powell’s first fire was put out successfully before it could spread, she explained.
“The adrenaline was revving high for a few hours after that, but it was pretty exciting,” said Powell.
Powell also gained experience in another facet of firefighting as a fire inspector, a job she worked for two and a half years.
Learning Every Day
“We’d go out and do inspections on businesses, to make sure they complied with the V.I. Code to protect themselves and their customers,” she said. “I attended arson school at the National Fire Academy in Maryland. I would get called out at two and three in the morning for fire incidents to do a report.”
Despite all the education and experience Powell has, she is still learning more, she explained.
“You learn every day,” said Powell. “Every day, something’s a little different.”
There are several things Powell hopes to accomplish as St. John’s Deputy Fire Chief, including getting new equipment.
“Hopefully our voice on St. John can be heard, because we need a lot more equipment and personnel in order to protect this community,” said Powell. “We are growing really fast and we’ve got a lot of old equipment here. We need the old equipment to be changed out so that we can respond faster and be able to take care of fires that are in multi-story buildings, which we are seeing more and more of.”
Powell also hopes to find a better location for the Cruz Bay fire station, which is currently located in the heart of town.
“The traffic here in the morning and the afternoon isn’t very conducive to us being able to pull out in case of an emergency,” said Powell. “Everything kind of gridlocks back to the tennis courts, which just makes it a real difficult situation. I hope we can get out of this immediate town area and to a place where we can get out and about.”
Opening a mid-island substation is also on Powell’s agenda.
“We’ve also talked about opening another substation toward the Gift Hill area, which I think is excellent, because they are developing more there too, with the heavy utility businesses, equipment rentals, the Gifft Hill School and the Bellevue housing community,” said Powell. “A lot of big development is happening in that area, and it would be nice to cover at least three major parts of the island.”