The City of Castlegar recognized Fire Chief Gerry Rempel for forty years of faithful service at the firefighters annual Christmas banquet last week.
Rempel started out his firefighting career at the young age of 16 with the BC Forest Service fighting summer forest fires. He then moved on to industrial firefighting with a mill in Quesnel before beginning as a volunteer firefighter in Castlegar in 1975.
Rempel’s first full time firefighting position came in 1981 with Transport Canada at the Castlegar Airport, moving up the ranks until he moved into the chief position there in 1984. In April of 1991 he became the deputy fire chief for Castlegar, a position which he only kept for four months before becoming the fire chief.
Forty years is a long time to stick with something, but Rempel has found his job very satisfying. “This is a good city, a good community,” he said. “When I look back, it is a good profession to be in. I’ve always liked about this profession that you have the opportunity to help people, not every job is like that.”
Rempel includes the new fire hall that was built in 1999 and the amalgamation of the two former detachments into one as highlights of his career. “It has worked operationally and administratively a lot better having one fire hall instead of two,” he said. “Our response times are better. Everyone is training together.”
The role of the fire department has changed a lot over the years. When Rempel first started, the department mostly did fire calls, with the odd rescue thrown in. The first year he joined the department there were 15 calls. That is a stark contrast to the over 900 calls the department will make this year. Calls now include rescues, highway rescues, vehicle accidents, aircraft fires, mills, dams, hazardous materials, medical emergencies and of course, fires. “We have an awesome crew here,” said Rempel.
When asked about the worst fires he has seen in Castlegar, Rempel quickly rattled off a list that included the BC Timber saw mill fire of 1978, fires at the Castlegar Hotel in 1977 and 1982, Kinnaird Elementary in 1979, St. Rita’s Catholic Church in 2013 and the Kinnaird Church of God in 2014. “It’s not so much the dollar value, but the impact on people,” said Rempel. “It’s hard when people loose everything.”
The downside of being fire chief in a small town for so long is that you likely know the people you are sent out to help. “There are some calls that time doesn’t let you forget,” said Rempel.
Rempel has led the department to be active in the community, volunteering even more than the time they spend on fire department work. They can be seen at Christmas time doing their annual toy drive, and throughout the year at community events, teaching fire prevention in the schools or raising money for Muscular Dystrophy research and treatments.
Rempel is also know around town for his 23 years of work with the Royal Canadian Air Cadets. He spent 14 years as the commanding officer of the Castlegar cadets before he was transferred to Nelson for the next seven years. This year, he has resumed the Castlegar commanding officer role. “It is a great program. It gives kids a sense of direction,” said Rempel. “It’s good working with the youth and having an impact. We have good kids in this community.”
The department has grown over the years and currently has 32 volunteers and two full time deputy chiefs. “You don’t do it by yourself, fire service is a team effort,” explained Rempel. “You have to work together. Lives depend on you.”
Rempel is appreciative of all the support he has had over the years. “It’s a good department. A progressive city. Council has always supported this department. It’s a good city to work in, I couldn’t think of a better one,” he said. “It truly is an honour and a privilege to do a job like this. I’m really grateful.”