For Larry Watkinson, coming to the Okanagan after serving as chief of the Mission fire rescue department will be a return home.
Watkinson starts work as Penticton’s fire chief on Feb. 1, taking over from Wayne Williams, who retired last year.
Originally from Kelowna, Watkinson went to the Lower Mainland to work with the Justice Institute, overseeing all the firefighter training. But he found he missed the atmosphere of being in the fire hall and responding to emergencies, so he took a job with the Mission department, eventually taking over as chief.
The search for William’s replacement began on Nov. 6 and was conducted by senior city staff, including chief administrative officer Eric Sorenson, deputy fire chief Dave Spalding and human resources manager Gillian Kenny.
Mayor Andrew Jakubeit said Penticton city council has been advised of the committee’s progress, but was not part of the interviewing process.
“We haven’t met him yet. Monday (Feb. 1) was going to be the first day to meet him and roll him out to the community,” said Jakubeit.
Jakubeit said one of the appealing factors was that Watkinson served with the Mission fire and rescue for eight years and had seen the growth of that department, starting from his time as assistant chief.
“The financials were pretty tight,” he said, adding that when he took the job, the district didn’t fill the other assistant chief positions.
“I was by myself. There were a lot of challenges.”
But with changes at Mission’s city hall, Watkinson said the vision for the fire department became a lot more proactive. The empty positions were filled and more focus was put on the department.
“Right now things are really smooth running and the boat is just sailing itself. To be honest, I feel really comfortable leaving right now because I know they’ll be just fine without me at the helm,” he said.
Watkinson was also on hand to negotiate the Mission department’s first two collective agreements, an experience that will serve him well as the Penticton fire department returns to the negotiation table for a new contract while the arbitrated contract settled last summer is being challenged in B.C. Supreme Court by the City of Penticton.
His experience in training will also come into play as the Penticton fire department continues to enhance and develop its training facility. Jakubeit said he hopes Watkinson will be able to take the training facility to the next level, not just for local use, but also fire departments in neighbouring communities.
“He’s been in the firefighter ranks, which I think was certainly a plus for him coming in,” said Jakubeit, adding that Watkinson’s relative youth was also a factor.
“We didn’t want this to be a retirement posting for someone. We wanted an up-and-coming, gung-ho management personality to come in.”
Jakubeit also commended Spalding for filling in after Williams left and making sure there was a seamless transition.
“I need to give Dave Spalding some very much due credit. He certainly rose to the occasion to demonstrate his aptitude as the deputy chief and fulfilling the role of head honcho. He did an exceptional job,” said Jakubeit. “He will certainly be there for support and mentoring Larry as he gets settled in.”
The decision to leave Mission was hard, but Watkinson said his family came first, explaining the demanding nature of responding to emergency calls.
“How many times I’ve left my family at the dinner table, I couldn’t count,” he said, adding that he knows the value of having the support of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, all of which are in the Okanagan.
“Primarily it is all to do with moving my family back to the Okanagan. After adopting our boys (Kodie and Spencer), we realized it takes more than just parents to raise a family,” said Watkinson, who was already traveling back and forth to visit relatives. When the job opportunity came up in Penticton, he and his wife, Christina, were eager to come back.
“I’ll miss the people the most. Mission was just an incredible community to come into with my family,” said Watkinson. “I love where I live out in Hatzic. I hike the trails every day. We love the wilderness here. I’ve never once run into somebody that’s been rude or not pleasant to me. I’ve always had 100 per cent respect from the community as fire chief.”
-With files from Kevin Mills/Black Press