In September 1954, Fred Parker joined the Calgary Fire Department. Sixty-eight years later, he hung up his helmet with Sooke Fire Rescue.
While Parker, 88, has retired from the fire service once before, being a firefighter will always be much more than just a job. It’s a way of life.
Parker said it is hard to describe how he is feeling about retiring again, but he is sure it was the right decision made at the right time.
“It is odd, but I had to shut down the fire department business because there is a lot of work there, and I don’t want the other guys to be doing it while I say ‘I can’t do that,’” said Parker. “The fire service is something I love because it gives, it saves. It is always doing good and helping people.”
By his count, Parker held 21 different jobs before getting into the fire service, starting as a young boy shining soldiers’ shoes for pennies during the Second World War and ending up working on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Facing layoffs, Parker said his father first suggested joining the fire service in Calgary.
“There was a long line of people waiting outside Western Canada High School to get in and be tested,” he said. “I went through all the tests, and I got a letter in the mail saying ‘you’re in the fire department now.’”
After two weeks of training, he was assigned to his first station. Fifteen minutes after starting his first shift, a call came in, and he dutifully grabbed onto the back of the firetruck, holding on tight as it raced to the fire.
That first call would be cancelled before he could reach the scene. Still, he would spend the next 16 years as a frontline firefighter and chairman of the local firefighter association before transferring to the department’s fire prevention division and eventually to a newly created arson investigation squad.
“After 16 years as a firefighter, I figured there had to be a better way to do this. That’s why I went into fire prevention,” said Parker. “There were too many fires, and I figured we needed to educate people, to get out there and look at these sorts of things.”
Parker rose through the ranks and became Calgary’s fire marshal in time for the 1988 Winter Olympics. Recalling those days, Parker is quick to joke about how fun it was to go anywhere he wanted in the Olympic venues and being “forced” to watch fireworks every night to ensure safe operation.
In 1990 and after 36 years as a firefighter, Parker retired, but only for a short time. A friend from the department had started working in Arizona as a private fire investigator and invited Parker to move down with his family and join the firm, which would take him all over the U.S. investigating many significant fires.
Parker eventually settled in Sooke in 2002 and quickly found himself involved with the fire service once again. At the suggestion of a neighbour, Parker joined the District of Sooke’s Protective Services Committee.
Parker said he was always asking questions and generally focused on fire inspections in the district, and that interest got him connected with then deputy chief Richard McLeod.
”He approached me and asked if I would mind if he came along on some inspections, and I said with 35 years of experience, no problem at all,” recalls McLeod. “I could draw on all his knowledge. We just hit it off right from the get-go.”
McLeod and Parker quickly became close friends thanks to Parker’s quick wit. The two would later transition to the Fire Incident Support Team, which provides logistical support to firefighters on the scene.
”He has a whole bunch of experience to draw from, and he is always eager to share it,” said McLeod. “It’s just who he is. He likes to give back to the community and be a part of it. He’s always happy-go-lucky, cheerful and telling jokes.”
With Parker’s retirement, Sooke Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Matt Barney said the department is losing one of its most valuable resources, even if he is sure Parker will never be too far from the station.
”For me, he was almost like having another father in the service,” said Barney. “Not having him here on our regular training nights, we’re going to miss his personality, his jovialness and his ability to pass on knowledge.”
As he looks back on nearly seven decades of community service through the fire service, Parker said he has very few regrets and wouldn’t do much differently if he were to do it all again. He said he plans to travel more with his family and get some work done around the house with some newfound free time.
Of course, he also plans to continue his community service more casually as a volunteer with Sooke’s Emergency Support Service.
“I feel I had the best career, I chose wisely, and I thoroughly enjoyed it,” said Parker. “I think anybody that is going into the fire service if they stick with it, they are going to come out just wonderful.”
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