Bill Dawson, 1975, in uniform as fire chief for the Kitimat Fire Department. He served over 20 years as fire chief for the Kitimat department, as well as 20 years of service for the Royal Candian Air Force. (Photo supplied)

Bill Dawson, 1975, in uniform as fire chief for the Kitimat Fire Department. He served over 20 years as fire chief for the Kitimat department, as well as 20 years of service for the Royal Candian Air Force. (Photo supplied)

In Our Valley: Bill Dawson

Ex-fire chief still contributing where he can

A headstrong fire chief who was a stickler for safety, Bill Dawson always kept his crew in line with a lack of injury reports to show for it.

Born in 1933 in Alberta, Bill moved to Vancouver when he was a baby. Spending all his adolescence in the big city, he lived in various parts of Vancouver during World War II.

“During the war, it was pretty tough in Vancouver. There was a lot of rationing and we were worried about being bombed. […] We also had blackouts,” Dawson said.

At the early age of 15, in 1947, Bill dropped out of high school and immigrated to Australia with his father for work.

Working out of a supply house for a few years, Bill and his father moved to New Guinea where he worked at a goldmine for a bit.

Making enough money at his various jobs around the world, Bill moved back to Canada, in 1952.

After being home for a while, Bill was offered a job through a lifelong friend on Saltspring Island, where he met his wife who he is still married to, to this day.

“Years before coming Saltspring, a friend of mine who moved from the island [to the mainland] would always talk to me about this young girl who lived there, so when I went up there [after Australia and New Guinea] and started logging, guess what, I met my wife Phyllis Dawson, who was the same girl my friend was telling me about way back in 1947.”

During his time on Saltspring Island, Bill began volunteering for the fire department before enrolling himself into the Royal Candian Air Force (RCAF) as a firefighter.

“I always wanted to be a police officer or a firefighter, but I didn’t have much education and my stature wasn’t big enough. […] But when I saw an ad in the newspaper that the RCAF was looking for firefighters, I thought I had enough experience with my volunteering so I applied and was taken on.”

Starting in the lowest rank possible, Bill moved to Europe during his service in 1966 and was promoted to Sargeant.

Taking exams for commissioning, he moved to Trenton, Ontario, in 1969, and became the lieutenant base fire chief in 1970.

After serving a total of 20 years as a serviceman in the RCAF, Bill was finally promoted to captain and became the command fire marshall for the armed forces.

“After Trenton, […] I had to cover [four different bases], and do fire investigations and inspections which was an onerous job.”

During Bill’s heavy workload as command fire marshall, he was commissioned by the air force to travel abroad yet again, however looking for salvation, Bill found a job opportunity in Kitimat and couldn’t resist.

“I was supposed to be headed to Ottawa, but I didn’t want to have to learn how to speak french. Plus, my family lived out on the coast and I just wanted to be a fire chief.”

Taking his release from the air force in 1975, Bill and his wife Phyllis moved to Kitimat in an old Volkswagen Beetle as soon as they could where Bill took on the role of fire chief for Kitimat.

Though Bill claims that he wasn’t insanely loved by staff because of how strict he ran his crew, he highlighted all the pranks he and the crew would pull on each other during his early days in Kitimat.

“One day I was going downstairs to the lockers [in the fire hall] and there was a dartboard on the inside door there with my pictures up on the wall with bloody dart holes in it. I was going to retaliate and put some union president’s picture up but I thought better of it.”

Not too keen on all the jokes flying around, Bill knew when the bells rang they were a team who supported each other and always stayed on the same page.

“Being a firefighter is not a job, it’s a way of life. We work together, we sleep together, and we go out and play together. […] We had some dust-ups but when the alarm went off we were a team.”

As heroic and proper Bill was during his service with the RCAF and the Kitimat Fire Department, he emphasized the stressors his wife felt while supporting him in such an unpredictable profession.

“I would always give my wife a hug and kiss at the door because you never know what would happen out there.”

In the 20 years of service at the Kitimat Fire Department, Bill worked through four mayors, five city managers, four recreational directors, and three engineers; creating lifelong relationships with everyone he worked with.

“When I took [the Kitimat Fire Department] over [in 1975] it was a mess. I did a few things constructions-wise, but the new chief has really polished things up; he’s made a silk purse set out of a sow’s ear.”

Falling in love with the town the moment he started working here, Bill has nothing but praises about the community and continues to volunteer his time, jokingly stating he’s still a city worker just not on the payroll.

“My time in Kitimat was very rewarding and I’m deeply indebted to it. I walk down the street and people still call me chief. Phyllis and I are very happy here and we have no intention of leaving; I’ll spend my last days here in Kitimat.”

READ MORE: In Our Valley – Tracy Owen-Best