Nelson will have a new fire chief by year’s end. Simon Grypma, 57, who has held the position since January 2008, will retire once his successor is named.
Although it’s not widely known in the community, the job was posted in May. City human resources manager Joanna Markin said 39 people applied, a mix of internal and external candidates, mostly from BC and Alberta. Skype interviews with a shortlist of eight are expected to begin Thursday, after which finalists will be brought in for face-to-face interviews. A decision is expected around the end of September.
Grypma is believed to be the longest serving firefighter in the department’s history at 38 years between auxiliary and full-time service. He sat down with the Star this week to discuss his long career, his most memorable fires, and one of the toughest decisions he ever made.
Why retire now?
That’s a good question. I’m at the age where I want to refocus my life on my family. Not that I’ve ever forgotten it. I now have three grandchildren, which is very exciting. I want to explore some other options, including taking up trail riding. The time seems right to start on those new adventures. I’ve got a lot of hobbies — woodworking, and a lot of projects at home that have been on hold for a while. My health is fantastic.
I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to achieve at the fire department. It’s in very good hands and I feel it’s also time for someone’s new vision, or a refocus of the vision for the department. There are people out there, including members of our own fire department, who have stepped up to the challenge to be the new chief. There are a lot of very good applicants. At some point in the near future, a new chief will be appointed, and I hope to spend some time with them and at that point announce my final day.
One of my focuses when I retire is going to be the history of this fire department. I am not walking away from it. I’ve got plans to spend time in the museum. I’d like to work on the old ladder truck to get it operational again. It’s a 1944 Bickle Seagrave with a 60-foot steel ladder. It’s drivable but the ladder isn’t operational and I’d like to test my mechanical skills and see if I and some of the other retired guys can make it operational again. I’ve threatened to write a book about my career in the fire service. Who knows, I might even do that. I’ve been offered some opportunities to work with College of the Rockies and Selkirk College at our training site here in Nelson. But I think for a few months I’m going to step back and do some travelling with my family and partner Lee.
Why did you want to become a firefighter?
On my 19th birthday, I was invited to the fire station by a friend who was then a live-in volunteer, to have a beer with him upstairs — that was when there was still beer available in the fire hall. Afterward, we were going down to the Hume Hotel to carry on with the celebrations. When we were leaving, I asked him if I could slide down the brass pole. With some instructions and after putting on a firefighters’ jacket, I slid down the pole for the first time. That was a turning point in my life. There was something about the fire engines, brass poles, the camaraderie, that became part of my life that day. It’s been part of my life ever since.
Didn’t you have earlier ambitions?
I was a young lad in Calgary and found a bit of an attraction to fire. I started a few backyard fires. One was a little more serious than others and lo and behold, the fire department showed up. I remember it was an open cab fire engine, and this big, burly fireman with a huge moustache came out. They stomped the fire out, put some water on it, grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and gave me a good lecture about the dangers of lighting fires — then invited me to a Father’s Day celebration at the fire station a few Sundays later.
I walked in with some friends and my dad. The fire hall was full of kids and firefighters and a big long table of ice cream and cake. That was the first time I’d been in a fire station. As a young kid, it was amazing to see all the gadgets, hoses, nozzles, helmets, and engines. For my sixth birthday that year, my uncle who I was named after, gave me a horse-drawn fire steam engine. So it’s been in my blood a long time.
Were you born in Calgary?
Yes. My family came to Nelson in November 1968. I remember the first fire I witnessed in the city was the Queens Hotel [November 17, 1969]. It was a Sunday morning as we were on our way to mass at the cathedral. We stopped and watched the fire for 15 or 20 minutes and witnessed the front wall fall onto Baker Street.
How did you become a firefighter?
I was invited by one of the lieutenants, Joe Carter. I got to know him during the summer. I ran into him a couple of times and he kept inviting me to fire practice in September. I thought what the heck. I was introduced to all the old-time firefighters, and the chief, Joe Palesch, who ultimately offered me a job. He was a great chief, although I only worked for him for a few years.
What was your first fire?
The Johnstone block [December 1, 1976]. It was a Wednesday night. I remember walking around the building. Being a rookie firefighter, it wasn’t our job to enter. But the spaghetti hose outside on the street was incredible. I was in awe trying to understand how these guys figured out which hose lines go where, and what connects to the hydrant, what hose you take up the ladder, and what goes inside the building. It was an eye-opener to experience that first fire — the smell of smoke and explosions happening inside the building. It was really something to start your career on a big fire like that. Luckily, nobody was hurt, but the building was a total loss. That’s where BCAA stands today.
How long were you an auxiliary before you got on full-time?
About a year and a half. I was offered a job and reluctantly turned it down. I turned the job down twice before I finally accepted in the spring of 1978.
Why did you turn it down?
I had ambitions to move out of Nelson, like so many young people. It was the year I was going to get married. We were going to look at other places to live. Finally after the third offer, I just couldn’t refuse. It was meant to be. My first day shift was May 28, 1978, a Saturday morning. It was Frank Yasek’s last day shift. He was a great guy. We were also paramedics back then and I went on my first ambulance call. I still remember the lady we helped, who lived on Park Street.
When did it become your ambition to be chief?
I’ll never forget the morning after the bowling alley fire [September 28, 1982]. I sat on my couch after the fire at home with my wife and said “Someday I will be the fire chief.” That’s when I first had that ambition. Over my career I was so fascinated by how the fire department evolved, how it was being managed. There were things I wanted to do personally to improve the fire service. That was part of my career advancement. My management style was never direct orders, but lead by example. I took quite a number of coaching courses. I’ve been told I was a bit of a hard-nose for many years. Today I’d rather think of myself as able to coach our department in the direction of my vision and city council’s.
Walk us through the various advancements in your career.
I started as a paramedic/firefighter, which I still believe was the best way we could operate. I see it someday returning. It’s a very cost-effective service for cities our size. I was promoted to lieutenant/shift officer in 1992. I was then appointed training officer. For the next five years I was involved in training our department and also belonged to the BC training officers association and was part of the direction of fire service training in the province. One of my goals for many years was to have firefighter certification, which we now have.
In 1995 I was appointed fire prevention officer as well. I was also acting chief when the chief of the day suffered an illness and was unable to work for about a year. After that I was appointed assistant chief, responsible for fire prevention and training. I did not do this on my own. I was only the coach directing our operations. The captains on shift all assisted in those programs. I want to be really clear: throughout my career I had support from the entire fire department. No single person is the fire department. It’s everybody that works here. That’s what makes it unique. You’re a team. In many trades you work on your own, and occasionally as a team. In firefighting, it has to be a team from the word go. We depend on each other for our own safety, which brings us tight.
I was very fortunate to have support from the chiefs I worked for and other people believed in my vision of fire prevention. Having seen so many commercial fires over my career, the devastation was horrific, not only on the businesses themselves but the income for the city in terms of taxes and employment. That was key in how I formed our fire prevention program and kicked it off in high gear. It was also in line with what city council wanted. We created partners in fire prevention, with building owners and managers, and they saw the need for fire prevention. They bought into our program. It was very aggressive, both maintenance-wise and upgrading old buildings to new standards.
My whole career we worked so hard to preserve our heritage and some of the worst fires we had, such as the Kerr block [January 6, 2011, pictured at left], put that fire prevention program into perspective for me. It was one of the saddest days of my career when I saw the building burn. But it was one of the happiest days of my career that nobody, not even a firefighter was injured. Which attested to the fire prevention program we had, to the upgrades and fire prevention work done to that building over many years of inspections, and in general our ongoing presence that heightened the level of safety awareness. The fire occurred in the basement, which was one of the worst places it could have started — it was set by vandals, or persons unknown who should not have been in the building …
I don’t think it has ever been reported that you determined that.
Well, we know it was not accidental. It was an intentional fire start in that corner of the building. There was no natural cause for ignition. No electrical, no boilers, and it was known to us that transients were sleeping in the building.
That night all the functions we worked on over the 34 years of my career to that point, from fire prevention to fire alarms to the training of our members, [allowed us] to safely evacuate and protect over 70 people living in that building at the time. Forty-two suites, unfortunately, were lost. But nobody was injured, which is all we can ask for. Unfortunately, the building was a loss due to its age and structure. We were actually surprised how much we saved but due to new building codes it had to be taken down.
One of the toughest decisions I ever had was to pull our men out of the Kerr block. The fire was spreading so quickly, even though our most senior firefighters came to me and we debated what attack to use — offensive or defensive — after looking at the smoke conditions and the report I got from the firefighters inside that that fire needed to be fought defensively from outside. We could not risk any firefighters. It was a hard decision when you have a team ready to move in, but it just wasn’t worth it. We had everybody evacuated, and as the chief it’s one of those calls: the safety of your firefighters.
That was a pinnacle for the fire department while I’ve been at the helm. But April 1, 1992 was a turning point for the department. We had that devastating fire where Aimee Beaulieu and her twins died. She was murdered and the place was set on fire. When our firefighters arrived, it started a whole new momentum in our department, not only in only fire prevention focus, but in the way we treated our firefighters.
I was lucky to be involved in an early stage of critical incident stress treatment. We started a committee to address these concerns and the issues coming out of large disasters in the US and Canada where firefighters were adversely affected mentally. We’re supposed to be the tough guys. We show up and it’s all business, no tears. But after a while it really has an impact on your mental ability to deal with these issues. That’s where the post-traumatic stress syndrome, critical incident stress, and the treatment thereof with the programs that are now in place and mandatory by WorkSafeBC. That’s always been very big on my plate too — mental health for firefighters and emergency workers.
In my career, I’ve been affected quite drastically from some events I was involved in, including two separate motor vehicle accidents. In one three people were killed, and in the other four were killed. It all has a lot of impact on us as firefighters. There were a few months in my career where I was ready to quit and look at something different. But because of my involvement in the critical incident [committee] I was able to pull myself together and carry on. I knew I had a commitment to my fellow firefighters to ensure they never went through that kind of problem. Whether it’s volunteer or career firefighter, there’s no difference. We’re all affected by those type of events.
Since that fire in 1992, we’ve had nine fire fatalities in Nelson and [we realized] our fire prevention has to focus on homes. From the early 2000s, I steered our department with the support of everyone from the chief to the mayor, councillors, and city administrator. We focused our fire department on residential fire prevention. It’s really paid off. In the last few years we’ve been very successful in preventing fires and the fires we’ve had have been a lot more manageable.
We’ve had some provincial recognition for our residential fire prevention program. In 2011-12, we kicked off our smoke alarm campaign with huge success. Our firefighters on duty phoned every household in Nelson and personally chatted with every homeowner about smoke alarms. We also had the city’s finance department put on tax notices to homeowners that it’s your responsibility to ensure you have a working smoke alarm.
I’ve been so proud to be able to bring all these people together in our community, whether homeowners or business owners, our firefighters, city council, senior management. They’ve also recognized this is vitally important to ensure our community is safe. As the fire chief, I am so proud and so unbelievably happy and complimentary of everyone. It takes a community to become fire smart.
My turn as the fire chief has been extremely rewarding to be able to work with this team of firefighters. I pretty well hired every one of the guys now working here, or been involved in their careers from day one. I’m very proud of this group and thankful to all the politicians that have come and gone. Not everybody was in favor of all the items the fire department brought up, from hiring firefighters to purchasing $750,000 worth of equipment. There’s always been challenges, but for the most part, especially during my career as fire chief, council has been wonderful to work for.
I’ve never had any political interference from council on how we run the fire department. I think that’s a huge compliment to city administrator Kevin Cormack, who also believed in my vision of how the fire department should operate. I made that clear when I was hired that I had a vision. He took the chance, and I can say the senior management team I’m part of has been fantastic to work with and very supportive of the vision we’ve had for the fire department.
What else do you regard as highlights?
Last year being the fire chief on the 100th anniversary of this building that I’ve been working in for just over a third of its life. When I started the fire hall was painted red. It had a metal roof and a flat turret on the hose tower. It was pretty well in shambles. You had to wear a winter coat day and night because the wind howled through it. During the summer it was sweltering. Still, I have fond memories of those early days. We always heard rumors that we were going to get a new fire station. But the senior guys on the floor always said “Simon, we will get a new fire station one year, but take our word for it: you’ll be retiring from this one.” And here I am.
I’m very happy city council and their agenda of greenhouse gas reduction gave way to restoring the fire hall and making it a facility that’s going to go for another 100 years, not necessarily as a fire station, but as an iconic building. This old fire hall on the hill is going to be standing here for a long time. We’ve done about $350,000 worth of upgrades since I’ve been the chief and it’s much more comfortable to work from, but still it doesn’t quite fit the needs of a progressive fire department. It was a great building for its era and I love giving tours to anyone who comes by.
What other changes have you seen in your career?
There’s certainly been a major change in the fire service in dealing with wildfires. This summer we were very lucky again to avoid any wildfire event in our community, but that’s been a huge change in direction. Since I’ve been chief, we’ve spent in excess of $400,000 on fuel modification within the city. In the event there is a fire, it should be a lot [smaller] and we should be able to manage it with the resources we have.
The other big change is in technology. When I started we had a 1957 American LaFrance, and a 1976 Ford engine, and a 1968 American LaFrance ladder truck. They were already getting on in age. Now we have four pieces of state-of-the-art equipment. The technology change has just been incredible. When I started, if your ear lobes were burning and starting to blister, you knew it was time to get out, where today we’re so protected, our information on when to get out is based on sound judgement and not the feeling in your ears — which changes the way we fight fires. It’s become much safer for our firefighters to do their job.
You are retiring, but there will still be a Grypma at the fire hall.
I’m very privileged to have been able to work with my son, Leo, who was hired after six years as an auxiliary member. Leo was trained at College of the Rockies and was a mirror of myself when I started. During the hiring process five years ago, I stepped aside and the deputy chief took the hiring on with city hall. Leo was the successful candidate. It’s taken some getting used to having a father-son relationship and a chief-firefighter relationship. But it’s been a pleasure. This is a family-oriented fire station. Kids come to visit and we’re all uncles and grandpas. I love seeing my granddaughter come in and call the captain “Uncle Gordie.”
Did you always know that was Leo’s ambition?
Leo went off to college and did two years. He came back and wanted to join the volunteer fire department. So did my son Case. The two of them wrote the aptitude test and did a recruit weekend and both were successful in joining our auxiliary department. Leo became passionate about it and quickly moved forward. He made sure he was certified. Case moved out of town for a job and became a pipefitter/gas fitter. He’s now very successful in his career. My daughter Rosie was always interested too, but the opportunity never came for her. She looked at joining the Surrey volunteer fire department. She landed a job in construction and now she’s a project manager for a restoration company.
Leo was a rookie firefighter at the Savoy Hotel fire [November 10, 2007] when I instructed one of the captains to take two teams into the building. I gave them two minutes to locate and extinguish the fire that was quickly spreading through the roof. It was a long shot to see if they could penetrate the ceiling and locate the fire that had spread through a chase way.
Unbeknownst to me, one of those individuals was Leo. The crew went in, and with our thermal imaging camera, located the fire. They pulled down sections of the ceiling and that’s what saved the building. Afterward, when we did the debriefing and I realized I’d sent my son into the building, it was a turning point for me. You’re no longer holding him back for fear of injury or worried he isn’t able to do that job. It changed the way I looked at him. Since then it’s been very enjoyable to have that opportunity to see Leo excel in his field.
It’s been a very rewarding 38 years to be part of this team and having the support of so many people. When I walk down the street, it’s very humbling. I’m proud of the compliments I receive about our fire department. I’ve always had one philosophy and still tell all the rookies: you start at the bottom. If we can’t trust you to do the simplest things as washing the fire engine properly, how can we expect you to save someone’s life? I’ve tried to lead by example. I spent many hours scrubbing fire trucks and cleaning bathrooms in the fire station. To everybody I can say if you have a dream, you will succeed if you put your mind to it. I’m very happy with what I’ve done and look around very satisfied.