Some cool things, some good and bad things for now-retired Rifle fire marshal Kevin Whelan
Citizen Telegram Editor
You might think someone who’s great-grandfather, grandfather and father were firefighters would just follow the family tradition.
But that’s not how Kevin Whelan intended to describe his recently-ended 32-year career. Whelan retired from Colorado River Fire Rescue, where he had worked since 2002, at the end of last month.
“I was working at the Safeway in Vail when a guy came in and said they were looking for guys to live in a new fire station,” Whelan, 58, recalled of how he became a firefighter. “I thought that sounded good. A free place to live in Vail.”
Whelan said while he had no intention of becoming a firefighter, “it gets under your skin.”
“I had a good run, there were some cool things that happened,” he added. “Some good and bad things, like every fireman.”
From ‘wildlife guy’ to firefighter
Whelan grew up in Bristol, Conn. and attended college to study biology and “be a wildlife guy” in 1976. At the time, Bristol had the highest unemployment rate in the nation, Whelan added, so in his junior year he came to Colorado to visit friends who were working on the I-70 Vail Pass project. Whelan dropped out of college, moved to Vail and got a job at the Safeway store, where he worked for the next 10 years while getting trained in advanced first aid at the Vail Fire Department.
“With my biology background, they urged me to become an [emergency medical technician],” Whelan said. “So I applied at Colorado Mountain College to earn my associates degree.”
At the same time, Whelan served on an ambulance crew at the Vail hospital and worked there and at Safeway. Whelan also taught first aid at CMC to help him pay for his associates degree. He also taught fire science.
Whelan met his future and current wife, Kim, at one of his advanced first aid classes in 1989 and they married the next year.
“I always tell people [cardio pulmonary resuscitation] and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is what led us to marry,” Whelan said, with a chuckle.
Soon after he earned a promotion to fire engine driver and operator, the fire department went bankrupt, Whelan said, and was absorbed by the Town of Vail.
“That included duties as dog catcher,” he added. “We had this little red van we used when we patrolled for dogs.”
In 2000, Whelan was promoted to lieutenant in charge of training, then was hired as training coordinator for the Rifle Fire Protection District in 2002.
In 2006, Whelan took an 8-month leave of absence to travel to Germany with a church group to work with U.S. soldiers. He was also promoted to fire marshal, the position he held until retiring.
“For my first 15 years as a firefighter, I always joked about how fire prevention officers are the guys who couldn’t cut it as line firefighters,” Whelan said. “But it’s really one of the hardest, because it can be very technical and you have to balance the fire code with the cost to a business or home owner and the local politics of the situation.”
Fire marshals review building plans for new projects, inspect those buildings for compliance to the locally-adopted fire code, educate people about how to prevent fires and investigate fires.
“I know I fought more fires on paper than I ever did in reality,” Whelan said. “Before a building is built, you look at what can start a fire, what can burn, what action brings those two things together and how to reasonably mitigate that.”
Whelan said his goal was always to keep 51 percent of the people he dealt with happy.
“When a building is built and I know it’s built right, that if a fire starts, it will be contained,” Whelan said of his contributions as fire marshal. “That’s a really good feeling.”
‘because I think I can’
Whelan said the timing of his retirement felt right, “Because I think I can. We’ve saved enough money and I feel blessed that I can get out of a very physical and stressful job as healthy as I am.”
Another factor was the recent merger of the Rifle district with the former Burning Mountains Fire Protection District, which was renamed the Colorado River Fire Protection District.
“I fully support the direction the district has taken,” Whelan said. “But jobs change and there’s only one fire marshal job in the new district.”
Whelan also noted there are things a firefighter usually doesn’t have time for that he hopes to tackle in retirement.
“Since we’re both fairly young and in good health, Kim and I want to take a 500-mile backpack trip along the Colorado Trail this summer,” he said. “But I’m thinking we may end up packing a mule” to carry provisions, rather than two heavy back packs.
Salmon fishing in Alaska is also on Whelan’s “bucket list,” along with ice fishing.
“My family bought me all the ice fishing gear I need 10 years ago, but I never had time to go until now,” he said.
Training a bird dog for hunting is another planned post-career endeavor.
The Whelans have two children: a daughter, Alex, who is beginning a two-year residency program in the emergency room at a medical center in Oklahoma City, Okla.; and a son, Sam, who graduates from Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Okla., this year.
Kim Whelan, a longtime health and science teacher at Grand Valley High School in Parachute, plans to continue her career for a couple more years, Kevin Whelan said.
“Actually, she wants me to go to massage and gourmet cooking school, so I could always be ready when she gets home,” Kevin Whelan said, with another smile.
Big fires not always most memorable
While Whelan helped battle some major fires in his career – the Marriott Hotel fire in 1999 in Vail and the Coal Seam Fire in Glenwood Springs came to mind – he also remembers some of the less-newsworthy calls.
“The incidents of death and sadness don’t go away,” Whelan said. “You try to deal with them by realizing you didn’t cause the problem and you’re there to stop the fire or the bleeding. You can’t take the end result personally. People are gonna die, houses are gonna burn down.”
Whelan and fellow Rifle firefighter Rob Jones also traveled to Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, to help with cleanup and recovery efforts.
“I remember we hooked up with some inner city San Francisco firemen who didn’t know how to cut down a tree,” Whelan recalled.
Training fellow firefighters was another career highlight, Whelan said.
“To know that, in some small way, I helped their career and their actions may have saved a life or two,” he added. “I run into people that came to a training program all over the country. Some of them were at Katrina.”
Whelan and his wife plan to continue to live on a small 16-acre ranch on Morrisania Mesa, east of Parachute and Battlement Mesa, where they have some fruit trees, grow their own vegetables and raise a few head of cattle for organic meats.
And even in retirement, Whelan will keep his hand in firefighting, as a board member of the Grand Valley Fire Protection District. The couple is active in the Grace Bible Church food bank program, too.
“So there’s still a strong desire to help people,” Whelan said. “I don’t think that will ever change.”
When a semi tanker rolled over and caught fire recently on Colorado Highway 13 north of Rifle, Whelan saw the smoke from home and couldn’t help thinking as a firefighter.
“I wondered if everyone was safe and if they were going to get it under control,” he said. “So I guess I’ll miss the involvement and helping people in that area. Firefighters really are adrenaline junkies, and when you get a good stop on a fire or someone who was dead sits up, you get such a sense of accomplishment. I struggle to think of another occupation where you get that reward on a fairly consistent basis.”
“When people need help, who do they call?” Whelan asked. “They call the fire department. That’s special. And to think I ended up carrying on the family tradition, I couldn’t be more proud or satisfied.”
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