Whistler fire chief announces retirement

Sheila Kirkwood reflects on 29 years with the local fire department

One of Whistler’s longest-serving firefighters is calling it quits.

After 29 years of service to the Whistler Fire Department, Sheila Kirkwood has announced she will be retiring from her position as fire chief in November 2015.

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“It was a pretty difficult decision to make, to walk away after so long,” said Kirkwood. “But it was important to shift the focus a bit more on personal health. Sometimes you come to those crossroads and you need to move in a different direction.”

Kirkwood first moved to Whistler in the summer of 1985 from North Vancouver, not for the skiing like so many others, but for work. She was hired as one of the first catering teams at the newly built Whistler Conference Centre.

“One of my coworkers there was a volunteer firefighter at the time and was talking about all the training they were doing,” recalled Kirkwood. “I had a background in first aid and just finished my lifeguard training and thought that would be a good outlet, so I joined the (volunteer firefighters) the following winter.”

There had already been several female volunteer firefighters in Whistler, but when the fire department hired its first group of full-time personnel in 1990, Kirkwood was one of four volunteers selected to join the growing department as a professional. She became the first female career firefighter in British Columbia.

“That was seen as a big step (into) the man’s world of firefighting,” said Kirkwood. “I think back in the day the hiring practices certainly would have favoured men, it was always the fastest and the strongest. It still is, but the difference is now that it comes later on in the recruitment process. Now there’s a written test, there’s interviews, there’s psychological testing. It’s so much more than a physical job, the emergency response is maybe 10 per cent of what we do.”

One of the most notable points in Kirkwood’s career was helping prepare Whistler for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games by helping design the emergency response protocols in cooperation with other agencies such Emergency Management BC, the RCMP and BC Ambulance.

“It was just on such a much grander scale, but it gave us the opportunity to really develop in terms of the emergency program,” said Kirkwood. “Now we have a full-time emergency coordinator that sits outside the fire department. I thought that was really important.”

The Spruce Grove residential fire in August 2014 sticks out as one of the events where Kirkwood and her entire team of firefighters went above and beyond.

“Being the fire chief, there have been a number of serious fire events where (Kirkwood) has had to make significant calls,” said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. “I think about the one in Spruce Grove where she didn’t hesitate to call out to neighbouring fire departments for mutual aid. She was faced with some serious incidents during her term as fire chief.”

But as Kirkwood noted, being a fire chief or a firefighter isn’t just about responding to emergencies. The Whistler Fire Department does extensive community outreach to schools and residents on the topic of fire safety.

“In the work that the fire prevention services does with children and with residents in making them aware of fire and emergency, Sheila has been a great leader,” said Wilhelm-Morden. “I’m sorry and sad to see her go, she’s just been a wonderful addition to our community. I do wish her the best with the next stage of her life.”

After finishing her term as fire chief in November, Kirkwood is looking forward to spending more time at her property in the Gulf Islands and giving her body a break from the demands of the job.

“It’s still four months away, there’s still lots of work to do,” she said. “But I’m really looking forward to putting that uniform away, not being on call and taking some real down time.”

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