It’s with mixed emotions Penticton Fire Chief Wayne Williams is leaving the job he loves and the people who have become his extended family.
Now 55, Williams is retiring this December from the position he has held for the past decade and a career spanning 35 years.
“I am going to miss it. I’m going to miss the guys and gals. I’m going to miss the members of the department because we are a big family,” he said. “It’s going to work and seeing everyone and sharing stories and responding to emergencies as a team. We spend a lot of time together and when your life depends on someone else it really is a different kind of family.”
On the bright side?
“I’m excited, my family’s excited. I’ll be spending more time with my wife and my daughter has two more years at Princess Margaret,” said Williams, who began his firefighting career as a volunteer in Chilliwack in 1980 while he was working at the local radio station. “My oldest daughter just got married in Squamish and we have an older son on the coast so we’re excited about seeing them more.
“I’ll also be able to go to a Vees game and not worry about being called out and go to the Peach Festival parade watch, I’ve been in it every year since I came here.”
He also plans to do some volunteer work which his position left him limited opportunity to do.
Before moving to Penticton to take the job as deputy chief, Williams worked for 20 years at the Port Moody Fire Department.
It was there he experienced what was to become the most memorable moment of his career which involved a blaze at the Port Moody Inn.
“There was only four of us and we pulled up and there were people hanging out the second story of the hotel wanting to be rescued,” he recalled. “Myself and my partner, we grabbed a ladder and managed to rescue a bunch of people from the second story.
“After that there was already another interior attack team going in and we got separated but I found someone in the hallway I managed to carry the person down the stairs and save them, however unfortunately there was a fatality. That was one I’ll always remember.”
Locally it was the 2008 Hamlets arson fire which stands out the most in his mind.
“That was a big fire and there were propane cylinders with fire impinging on them and we just had so many things working against us,” said Williams. “I was so impressed by our staff and how they worked on that fire. They did a remarkable job to make sure it didn’t extend to the whole structure which it could have very easily.
“It looked spectacular but it was also a good save.”
At the time of the Hamlets call crews had just finished putting out another arson fire not far away.
The same people were spotted at both and an investigation eventually resulted in a conviction. No one was injured.
Since he started, the Penticton chief has witnessed a number of significant changes in training, equipment and firefighting tactics.
“For example, back then we didn’t have balaclavas or hoods, our ears were our tell tale sign, if our ears got too hot then it was time to get out,” said Williams. “I remember riding on the back of fire trucks, now you don’t do that any more you ride on the inside and you’re buckled in.
“There are a lot of safety things now to protect firefighters but unfortunately we’re still losing firefighters.
“You never know when it’s going to happen and you got to be ready for it.”
He feels one of the biggest challenges for any fire chief is not necessarily in the field but having to deal with the fiscal restraints dictated by elected officials.
Overall he feels Penticton is in good shape when it comes to staffing, but admitted there are times when it keeps him awake at night.
“I think that is part of the reason I’m ready to retire. I was deputy for four years and fire chief for the last 10 it does start to take its toll,” said Williams. “It’s time to take some of that stress off and get healthier and spend that time with my real family.”