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Trend-setting fire chief set to retire

Bill Higgs
Long-time fire chief Bill Higgs is stepping down this April after 26 years at the helm of the Sechelt Volunteer Fire Department.

Bill Higgs, Sechelt’s fire chief for the last 26 years, is moving into retirement this spring.

He’ll make the move on April 2, his 59th birthday, stepping aside to let someone else take the helm of what has been a trend-setting department under his watch.

The Sechelt Volunteer Fire Department became the first in North America to start using suppression foam to fight fires and the first to champion the use of fire sprinklers. Both are now common practice for departments throughout North America.

Higgs said he received a lot of pushback in the early 1990s when he first decided to retrofit one of the department’s vehicles to use Class A foam via compressed air system to fight municipal fires. Until that time it was used only by the U.S. forest service to put out bush fires.

“I looked at that back then and I thought, if you’re using it to put out forest fires, which is Class A fuel, why can’t we use it for municipal firefighting, which is typically Class A fuel, normal combustibles,” Higgs said.

“I thought, why can’t we put that on a truck and change things around a bit and use it for putting out house fires? Of course, everyone just went ballistic.”

The loudest voice of dissent came from the fire commissioner at the time, who said the method wasn’t proven and called the practice “voodoo firefighting,” saying Higgs couldn’t go ahead with it. Higgs pushed back, stating he didn’t see any rules that made it illegal, and he got the consent of his board of directors to try it out.

So the Sechelt department started using the foam to fight fires locally and they saw success after success with the new method.

“Slowly but surely some other departments in the States started using it because they could see what we were doing, and a couple of other departments in B.C. started using it, and now the whole fire service is using compressed air systems and Class A foam and it was started by this fire department,” Higgs said.

He’s proud of that accomplishment and equally proud of how he helped champion the use of fire sprinklers in buildings to put out blazes long before firefighters arrive.

“I can’t speak enough about how much we support that and how much work we did on that 25 years ago to get to the point now where even the province of B.C. recognizes that fire sprinklers are the way to go. And when the new building code comes out in the spring, there’s going to be an opt-in clause for municipalities to opt into accepting more fire sprinklers as a way of providing fire protection for the community,” Higgs said.

“I’m very happy about that. That was a committee I sat on for the last couple of years, working at a very high level with the building policy branch with the province of B.C. I represented the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C. in that regard.”

While there are many other things during his 26 years as fire chief that Higgs is proud of, the level of training he’s been able to pass on to his firefighters is something he holds dear.

Thanks to his foresight, the Sechelt Volunteer Fire Department secured a five-acre parcel of land in West Sechelt in 1993 to train on, and thanks to community donations of old vehicles and portable buildings, firefighters have been able to learn and practise their auto extrication skills, firefighting and rescue techniques close to home.

The department uses the site often and also opens it up to other departments on the Coast. Currently members are putting together a four-storey building onsite to get even more out of their practice time.

Higgs said the proof of their level of training comes up time and again at competitions in the Lower Mainland.

“We do really well at competitions to the point that a lot of the larger career fire departments don’t want to compete against us because they just don’t like that too much,” Higgs said.

He never thought he’d do so much or have such a long career with the fire service when he first signed up as a recruit in 1985. He had no plans of becoming fire chief at that time.

“I had no aspirations at all. I was just a community-minded young guy,” Higgs said.

Within three years, Higgs became a captain with the Sechelt fire service and after a year in that position he was promoted to assistant fire chief.

In 1990, Higgs was named fire chief in the first paid position the department ever offered.

“We used to burn a chief out about every two years,” Higgs said “So the board of trustees, very much in their wisdom, said: ‘We need to step up to the plate and make this a career position.’”

As the first career fire chief, Higgs was able to focus on the future and take the department to new heights.

Now he feels it’s time to give someone else a chance to lead and he’s looking forward to his retirement in April.

“In retirement I’m looking forward to hunting and fishing and a lot of boating. I’m a big boater and I think that comes from the fact that I was raised on tugboats. Before I was in the fire service, I was a tug skipper, and so was my dad and so was my grandpa and so were all my uncles. The Higgs family has a long tradition in the B.C. tugboat industry,” Higgs said.

“I was kind of the one who broke the mould.”

He’s unsure who will take his place at the Sechelt department, but he’s sure whoever is chosen will continue to improve the department to best serve the people who depend on it.

“The department is ready to transition from within and it will be up to the board how they do that, but the community can expect very much a seamless transition,” Higgs said.