He’s credited with bringing Lantzville Fire into the 21st century, escaped the razor when his beard was grandfathered into the fire service’s safety regulations and he’s known for community service, whether its fighting fires or roasting hotdogs for kids.
Tom Whipps, 67, is Lantzville’s last volunteer fire chief, set to retire this month after 35 years with the department and 14 at its helm.
He made the announcement earlier this year, prompting a review of the fire service and the hiring of the community’s first paid, part-time fire chief. Politicians will also make a decision on the level of service they want the department to provide, in the wake of new provincial training standards.
Whipps, dressed in neat blue slacks and a white shirt decorated with insignia, leans back in his office chair, looking a far cry from the picture painted by one of his colleagues who likened him to TV character Red Green for his past habit of turning up at the station in plaid shirts, cut-off jeans and steel-toed black shoes. His uniform has changed, along with the department as he led it into the 21st century.
Now Whipps is ready to take a back seat. Life is too short, he said, and he’d rather leave the headaches of the chief job to someone else and get back to the grunt work, like helping the department preserve its history.
That is, of course, as long as he gets to keep his beard, he said, flashing a quick smile. He’s had it since the day he became a volunteer in 1980.
The fire chief had been trying to get him to join for around two years, with no luck. The trick was getting him mad enough to say yes.
He was driving his motorbike behind a Lantzville fire truck one night, when a hydrant wrench flew off the back and ricocheted toward him.
Whipps took it to the fire hall.
“I got off my bike with it and waved it under the nose of the chief – ‘can’t you keep these things on the truck? The damn thing almost killed me.’
“He just looked at me and said, ‘Apparently not. Maybe you should join and see if you can do a better job of it.’ So I did.”
By 2001, Whipps climbed the ranks to chief.
It was the same year he earned a medal of merit from the Lifesaving Society in B.C. for his off-duty rescue of a five-year-old girl and a woman from the gushing waters of an open culvert. He can still remember the little girl chanting ‘thank you’ over and over after he lifted her out of the water and set her on a grassy bank. They could have drowned.
“It still chokes me up to think somebody came that close,” he said.
As fire chief, he addressed WorkSafe issues like hall ventilation and bought a fill station to improve safety for firefighters filling up air cylinders.
He oversaw the district’s first fire inspections, purchased new fire trucks and worked to create identity for the department beyond T-shirts. Uniforms made them look good and professional, no longer these ragtags, said Whipps, who’s proud of his volunteers.
Firefighters Ken Spence, Lieut. Steve Page and deputy fire chief John Marment, see Whipps as a strong leader, who earns respect by showing it, gets the best out of everyone and encourages community service. He’s taken on the collection of jackets for the homeless, donations for holiday hampers and calendar sales to raise money for fire education.
“He’s going to be a hard act to follow,” Marment said.