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Don Oliver was just 2 years old when he had his first encounter with firefighters, but it was a pairing that lasted a lifetime.
It all started when Oliver’s mother had the toddler stand near the Christmas tree for a New Year’s Eve photograph in his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Oliver said he decided to imitate his dad by flicking one of the bulbs on the tree while his mother changed the film.
“Mom heard the pop and turned around to see the curtains and all the cotton batting under the tree was on fire,” Oliver recalled. “She grabbed the curtains from around me and put them in the toilet to extinguish them. She had scars on her hand until the day she died from that.”
Oliver ended up with singed hair and burns on his neck. Fire took the life of his friend’s brother when Oliver was in fifth or sixth grade and he still recalls the men rolling the hose at a fire station across from his junior high school.
However, it was a motorcycle wreck and a layoff while living in Kansas that convinced him to join the fire service.
“We got a week notice of being laid off when the tool expediter asked me what I was going to do,” Oliver recalled. “I asked him what he was going to do and he said, ‘If I was young enough, I’d join the fire department.’”
The coworker had left the fire service to take care of family, but was eager to return to a career “with a great schedule with usable time off with your family, without the worry of being laid off and you work with a bunch of great people.”
At 20 years old, Oliver went to a fire station, ankle cast and all, to inquire. He took his oral interview with the cast, then convinced his doctor to remove it so he could take the physical. On March 27, 1967, Oliver became a firefighter in Wichita, Kansas.
LADDERS AND LESSONS
“I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my career. I was there during the riots of the ‘60s in Wichita, where we got pinned down by snipers and had to put cages on the firetrucks because people would throw things at us. It was a pretty turbulent time.”
His career was forever altered, though, when a Chevrolet dealership caught fire two blocks from his station on Nov. 21, 1968. He still remembers the meal he cooked his crew for dinner — pork steak and dressing, mashed potatoes with gravy, okra and corn, then chocolate cake with peaches for dessert.
At 9:14 p.m., the call came out while the firefighters were letting the meal settle in their stomachs while watching TV.
“When we arrived, they were moving cars out and we had to dodge them to lay the (hose) lines,” said Oliver. “About 10 minutes later, the roof came in and trapped 13 firefighters.”
Four died that night — including a firefighter Oliver talked to 20 minutes earlier, the chief of the department, his driver and the fire marshal.
“When the roof came down, it trapped them under the rubble. We didn’t get them all out until 3 the next morning,” he recalled. “It looked like a civilian operation when it all ended because of all the off-duty personnel who came in to help.”
Oliver describes that night as a turning point in his career.
“I realized I was either going to make a difference in this business or I’m going to get out of it,” he said. “Seeing four people die right in front of you is a pretty significant life event.”
He said that night spurred a passion for safety in him that stuck with him as he spent nights drawing maps for the department while his coworkers watched football. Despite being promoted to the rank of engineer, a snowmobiling trip to Colorado prompted a change of scenery and department.
RISING THROUGH THE RANKS
On Jan. 18, 1973, Oliver got married. On the 19th, he took the department test in Thornton, Colorado. He returned to Wichita, but the administration in Colorado had him fly back to take the physical agility test and go through the interview process. He was hired on the spot, so he returned to Kansas to give his notice and pack up the life he and his wife Linda had created into an 8-foot by 5-foot trailer.
As a new member of the department, Oliver returned to the rank of firefighter, but was an engineer in about six months and a lieutenant within 14 months of starting. As a lieutenant, he served as a training officer before skipping the rank of captain and being promoted to assistant chief. When the fire chief was terminated and the deputy chief didn’t want the job, Oliver again skipped a rank to head the department.
He served as the fire chief in Thornton for about four years before he heard about the opening for fire chief in Wilson.
“When I was in Colorado, I responded to a DC-9 plane crash, so I had a lot of experience that others hadn’t been exposed to,” Oliver said about shifting his career to North Carolina. “I guess in my old age I’ve become pretty mellow. There is not too much that I haven’t seen. Not too much excites me anymore.”
Oliver never set foot in a Wilson fire station before being hired, but his first order of business was organizing a meeting to talk with all of the staff.
“I said, ‘The reason they hired me is to get you what you need to do your job,’” he recalled. “Every one of these people have a brain and I believe they have something to say and something to offer. I didn’t build the fire department to what it is, they did. I just gave them what they needed to get there.”
Input from firefighters and Oliver’s direction helped the department evolve from the Wilson Fire Department to Wilson Fire/Rescue Services. In 1993, two fire stations were relocated and a Fire Life Safety Store was opened at Parkwood Mall. He pushed for better equipment and increased training, including the hazardous material response team in 1994, and Wilson became a pioneering user of geographic information systems in 2000.
“We were the first department in the state to use thermal imagers,” he said. “As soon as they became available, I put it in my budget and bought two.”
Oliver said he did what he could to help the department live up to its newly adopted vision statement: “We will be the premier fire/rescue service in the nation.”
“That is the vision the team of this organization has, and I hope they never lose that,” he said.
While the department has changed a lot since Oliver arrived in 1992, the staff size and number of stations hasn’t changed.
“I think the biggest change I’ve seen in 50 years is that the fire service has gone from a response agent to a proactive leader in the community,” he said. “We lead the effort in risk reduction through education, engineering and enforcement.”
The Fire and Life Safety Adventure House next to fire headquarters is an example of that mentality. A grant in 2006 and sweat equity by firefighters helped to make the ideas thrown out by all ranks during a brainstorming meeting a reality with the opening of the house in 2009. Department officials from across the country came to Wilson to emulate ideas from the house in their own communities, but Oliver said what makes the adventure house a success is the fact that it is an ever-evolving educational tool.
Oliver said he has tried to instill a similar mindset into all of the firefighters he’s mentored.
“I tell them don’t ever stop learning,” he said. “Keep growing because this is an ever-changing field. The department changes by the day and it’ll continue to change when I leave.”
After 50 years in the fire service, Oliver said he’ll miss the people the most.
“The best part of my job is promoting people to be successful,” he said. “And the worst part is when I see someone I’ve invested time and effort in who doesn’t reach their full potential or they do something that costs them their career. That breaks my heart.”
He said he is confident in the leadership team and the candidates for his replacement.
“We’ve had this management team about two years and they are hitting on all eight cylinders,” he said. “They are really moving the department forward.”
While Friday will close out a half-century career, Oliver said he is eager to focus his energy on his children and 10 grandchildren.
“If I had my career to do all over again, I’d do the same things,” he said. “Well, except for that dealership fire. I’d change that if I could.”