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Changing of the Guard



When Rob Whitton took the job as assistant fire chief in Whistler more than a decade ago, he was looking for a place where he could make a difference and bring about change to the slow-to-change fire rescue service.

On the eve of his retirement he can't help but feel a swell of pride in his department, which has grown from 16 firefighters to 21 and, more importantly, grown into a service to rival any of the best.

"The biggest thing I think I'm the most proud of is the department itself, and how much it has changed and how much it has become that professional service," says Whitton. "When I walk onto the fire ground and I see the crew doing what they've been trained to do, both the career staff and the paid-on-call staff, and the precision with which they do it with, I'm very proud of what we've been able to accomplish."

It wasn't always easy. Whitton brought the tough grit of his first job — an ironworker for a decade on jobs like BC Place and the Annacis Island Bridge — and an unapologetic ambition fostered during his years as a firefighter working his way up through the ranks to end up as chief of the Whistler Fire Rescue Service.

Shepherding change

Before Whistler, Whitton had been in the Abbotsford fire service for 15 years — the first two years as a paid-on-call firefighter, the last eight as union president. But he had no chance of moving up the ranks there; too many others with seniority ahead of him were first in line. It frustrated him, this stagnant system in which firefighters weren't rewarded for their hard work, or their commitment to education, rather it was their time on the job that counted.

For an organization that has to think quickly on its fee,t and adapt to fast-changing situations, it's very reticent to take on change, he said.

"I grew up into a system there where it was lock-step seniority, meaning everybody waited their turn to promote up to an officer, so you would have people being on a job for 18 to 20 years before they were even given the opportunity to move up. That seemed to be a standard through a lot of departments," said Whitton.

"What I wanted to do was to impart to a department and tell them, 'you know, it's not OK to just sit and wait your turn. You need to make yourself available, you need to make yourself a viable candidate for whenever the situation presents itself.'"

Whistler presented a perfect opportunity.

Here he found a small team of firefighters and, looming on the not-so-distant horizon, the biggest event in Whistler's history, the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Change was almost inevitable and it came fast and furious, with Whitton as its shepherd on the ground, under the watch of former Chief Bruce Hall. Whitton said it began with small things like insisting on common and consistent language on the fire ground and radio, it spread into things like uniform standardization, and there was a push to deal with the public in a consistent and professional manner given the fact that the fire service does nearly 900 fire and life-safety inspections within the community.

And then bigger changes came about, in part from the union. Firefighters were promoted to captains to bring some responsibility and accountability while on shifts.

"It's a big cultural shift; a very, very difficult cultural shift," he said.

"And there was some push back, and that was to be expected. I mean, the guys had a way of doing things for so long that making that change is difficult for them, understandably so."