Virgil resident Jo Zambito wasn’t one of those kids who grew up wanting to become a firefighter.
His childhood was spent on the family farm on Hunter Road, and farming has always been in his blood, he said, but he thought his passion was in architecture.
However, once he became a volunteer firefighter in Niagara-on-the-Lake, that became his passion, and he began working his way up through the department, knowing he aspired to one day become fire chief.
Last week, when his promotion to Niagara Falls fire chief was announced, his days became a little crazy, he says.
“I’ve heard from so many people, so many friends. People I went to school with, worked with, people in the fire service past and present. It’s been a very humbling experience, and a good kind of crazy. It’s been really nice hearing from people I haven’t heard from for many years.”
He takes on the title of chief June 30, when the current chief is set to retire.
The Niagara Falls Fire Department has 146 full-time personnel, and a volunteer complement of 104.
When Zambito heard the position would be posted, it took him some time to prepare mentally for the possibility of being chief. Once he decided he was ready, he had to work through the process, with virtual interviews, and it was nerve-wracking, he says, “but it was all worth it.”
He is also an alternate fire co-ordinator for Niagara Region, an appointment by the Office of Fire Marshal and Emergency Management.
Before becoming a volunteer firefighter for the Virgil station, Zambito worked for the Town of NOTL as a building inspector and municipal enforcement officer.
He remembers the day he went outside to put some gas in one of the town vehicles, and saw Bruce Little, then the NOTL fire chief, looking very smart in his formal dress uniform, filling the tank of his vehicle. Zambito offered to help, not wanting Little to get his uniform dirty. When he was finished, Little suggested he consider becoming a volunteer firefighter.
In those days, it was a simpler process — he showed up at the Virgil fire station on a Monday night, and the training began, leading to attending fire college.
“That was the start of my career,” says Zambito, who would run across the street from the town hall to the fire station when a call came in.
He also recalls his involvement in community events as one of the best parts of being a volunteer firefighter. “It’s a side of fire service you don’t think about when you join, but it’s a huge part of it. And it’s something the community really appreciates.”
His first full-time job in the NOTL firefighting service was in 2005, with a complement of 110 firefighters, when he moved from his volunteer position as captain to deputy fire chief.
It was 11 years later that he took the job of deputy chief of operations with the Niagara Falls Fire Department, which has some similarities to the NOTL fire department he left behind.
Some of the stations are staffed with volunteers, who on occasion work side-by-side with the professional firefighters in the department, he says. “They work well together, and have a great relationship.”
And while it may not have been his dream job as a child, looking back, Zambito, 42, says, “I can’t think of a better profession. I love what I do, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Except, maybe, working on the family peach farm in his spare time, to ensure that lifestyle and work ethic is passed on to his kids. “Farming taught me a lot. I want that for my kids. I want them to learn how to work.”