Single and working as a caretaker-landscaper for a Whonnock estate, young Peter Grootendorst had admittedly given no thought to ever becoming a firefighter.
It was never his childhood aspiration. Even when Firehall No. 2 chief Bob Isley approached him about becoming part of the small rural volunteer fire team in Whonnock, he didn¹t think about a potential career.
Grootendorst did think it would be a great way to meet people since he was still relatively new to town and he saw it as a way to help the community. But, there was still no desire to become a full-time firefighter.
That was 30 years ago, and his outlook has obviously changed.
And, even though the Maple Ridge fire chief announced this week he’s leaving the local fire brigade, he’s not leaving the world of firefighting behind and he doesn’t know that he ever will.
He finishes his 25-year stint as a full-time Maple Ridge fire officer on Sept. 27, and begins about a week later as director of the fire and safety division for the Justice Institute (JI) of B.C.
“I was joking with the guys. If I pull into the parking lot in the morning, just come out and tell me to keep going. You know, auto pilot,” Grootendorst said, confident it will happen at least once or twice.
Since his early years in Whonnock, he’s always been impressed by the camaraderie that comes with being a part of the Maple Ridge fire team, not just for himself, but his entire family. And he's anxious to keep in touch.
“It’s kind of like leaving your family,” he said, confident he and his family will never cut all ties with the local team.
Admittedly, his announcement has been met with a degree of shock from some, along with a lot of support and encouragement from others.
“I’m sad on one hand… but I’m proud of all my accomplishments and where the department is now.
“It’s a good time to go,” he said.
For him, it’s been, above all, an honour to serve, and while there’s lots he’ll miss, Grootendorst said he won’t miss the callouts at 3 a.m., and is happy to give up the duty chief responsibilities that are currently shared among him and four other fire officials who work four days on, 24-hours a day on-call.
Getting “a little long in the tooth,” he said, moving to a Monday to Friday job, and working 9 to 5 is very appealing.
But, he confessed, he’ll probably have to wean himself off listening to the emergency service scanners, feeling that constant need to know what’s going on in his community. He plans to remain a resident of Whonnock.
Like many, Grootendorst suspected he would retire out of the firehall in a few years, and he wasn’t actually looking for a change of career at age 56.
But when the job at the JI popped up on his computer a few months back, he felt compelled to give it a shot.
When he was offered the post a little more than a week ago, he knew the move was right returning to some of his roots in the fire service, namely fire training, which is what saw him first elevated up the ranks within the local fire department from a volunteer to the assistant chief and the first full-time person in charge of training back in December 1989.
At that time, he was working with fire chief Pat Brooks and deputy chief Richard Purdey, who recently passed away.
Grootendorst was later promoted to the position of chief along with Dane Spence in 1998. Grootendorst took over responsibility for operations, while Spence became director of community safety.
Now, his new position with the JI will see Grootendorst overseeing fire training again, but on a much larger and broader scale.
He’ll be responsible for curriculum and course development for the academic components taught at the JI in New Westminster, the hands-on practical training offered at the Maple Ridge campus on 256th Street, as well as other courses offered at the Victoria, Okanagan, and Chilliwack JI campuses.
The new job with the JI will mean Grootendorst will continue to work closely with community firehalls throughout the province, but also with others who require training, such as the First Nations Emergency Services and the commercial sector for example, the forest (especially mills), marine, railway, and construction industries. He’s also expecting to grow the institute’s international component.
“I’m excited that I’m going to have a lot of influence and input into fire training for the entire province,” he said, noting how he’s always anxious to improve the quality of training that ensures the life and safety of firefighters.
Grootendorst is no stranger to the JI.
When an instructor was sick more than 27 years ago, he was asked to fill in temporarily. He soon became a part-time instructor, working evenings and weekends until time restrictions came to much on top of his chief¹s duties.
But since the training aspects of firefighting have always appealed to him, he admits to being excited and invigorated about his new job known for always going that extra mile to make learning fun, interesting, and engaging.
“But, in order to lead change, you need to be involved in the planning and budgeting, too,” he said, knowing his experience as a fire adminstrator will prove vital in his new post with the JI.
This job change, Grootendorst added, might also help him ease into retirement. He was having a difficult time envisioning himself just walking out of Firehall No. 1 one day, swapping fighting fires and dealing with all the administrative duties for fishing and travelling with his wife.
“It’s been a very rewarding career. It’s been great,” he said, reflecting back and recounting a few very close calls through the years.
A house fire in downtown Maple Ridge, on 224th Street just south of Lougheed Highway, almost cost him his life.
He and his partner had entered the top floor of a home engulfed in flames that was thick with smoke. It was so dark, and with zero visibility they were checking all the rooms because of reports someone might be inside.
He opened one door, and took a step in, only to find it was the door to the basement. Flames had already ravaged the bottom floor, and the steps were gone. If it hadn’t been for the fast action of his partner in grabbing the collar of Grootendorst’s turnout gear and pulling him back, Grootendorst fears he would have fallen - likely to his death.
Another time, a call came in of a car over an embankment just east of 240th Street on Lougheed Highway. He parked, and was walking across the road in search of the vehicle, when he found himself playing chicken with an out-of-control westbound car that came around the turn and suddenly began spinning towards him at rapid speed.
He remembers holding his breath for what seemed like eternity, trying to guess which way to jump to avoid being struck by the oncoming car that – unbeknownst to him – had hit a diesel spill and doing repeated 360-degree turns as it came careening at him.
Dodging back and forth, he remembers his immense relief when the car flew past, missing him by three or four feet.
And one of the most surreal experiences of his career came during a mill fire in Whonnock.
Grootendorst was alone on a deck inside the mill fighting the fire with a hose. The flames were so hot that winter day that the visor on his helmet was melting, and he remembers thinking it odd that he was slipping on ice given the conditions.
It turned out, he wasn’t slipping on ice, but rather the rubber on the base of his boots was melting under the scorching conditions.
When he finally realized what was happening, he remembers making a rapid descent, grateful to have escaped safely.
Despite some close and odd calls, Grootendorst said he’s fortunate to never have suffered any significant injuries in his time as a Maple Ridge firefighter. He’s had a few twisted ankles, sprained back, and burns on his wrists and ears. But he considers himself fortunate.
Part of him wanted to be around to see the realization of a few big projects, including the creation of wildfire policies for residential development in areas such as Silver Valley, which butt up against the forests.
He also longed to see a fourth firehall built in Maple Ridge, complete with a training ground. He also expected to be around for the renovations to
Firehall No. 3 in west Maple Ridge.
But, he said he can’t be selfish, either. This is a good time for change within the organization, and he must think of the rest of the team, too.
It’s unclear what will happen to the management team when Grootendorst leaves. Restructuring is expected, and he doesn’t predict they’ll hire another chief, noting the dual-chief position was an oddity that grew out of the circumstances.
His departure gives the team more flexibility in how they’re going to restructure the management team for the future.
@ Copyright 2013