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UCFD #1 Hot Seat: Jim Whelan

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It’s time for the nineteenth edition of the UCFD #1 Hot Seat. The Hot Seat provides a brief snapshot sharing the story of a highly committed and dedicated staff member.

It is with great pleasure UCFD #1 introduces to you; Jim Whelan. Whelan has served the communities of Stanfield and Hermiston for 53 years, but his story starts back in the 1960s. Whelan grew up in the Willamette Valley but relocated to Stanfield, OR in 1963 when his father, James Whelan, purchased a farm. The following year James Whelan realized his son Jim wasn’t going to be a farmer, so he bought the Stanfield Hardware store. This was followed by the devastating Stanfield flood in 1964, so they spent the first year taking inventory in the shop by shoveling out two and half feet of mud out of the store. Jim’s main job at the store was driving a truck around the county and delivering building materials. Six years later in 1970, the fire chief/police chief for the city of Stanfield stopped in the store and was talking with James Whelan when he mentioned he couldn’t find anyone to drive the tanker (water tender) for Stanfield’s Fire District. James Whelan responded to the chief and said, “Get Jim on the fire department, he can drive it.” That’s all it took for Jim to unknowingly start his legacy.

Given that Whelan had never driven a water tender before, the chief gave him a run down of what to do and how to respond to emergency calls in the area. “The chief told me that I have to respond when the fire tones go off, run out of my house, get in my car and drive like hell to the fire station. Once I get there, I’d jump in the water tender and follow the fire engine to the scene,” Whelan remembered. Whelan has been on hundreds and thousands of calls over the years. He even remembers one of his first calls from back in 1970. “I wasn’t driving the tender on this call, but we had a 1967 Ford that had a cage on the front and on wildland fire you would just hop up in the cage and just drive along, putting the fire out. We were down on the river, driving through brush higher than my head. I just so happened to look down to see a big hole and I yelled out of the cage for the driver to stop. I was thinking, if we’d have went three feet further we’d have dropped into about 20 foot hole and it wouldn’t of looked pretty because I would’ve been on the bottom of it,” recalled Whelan. Firefighting was a lot different back then. There weren’t the safety standards and training requirements that departments around the country require in today’s world.

As a matter of fact, the man who changed that standard in Oregon was Jim Whelan. Since there was no training program in place, he made it a point to create one. In 1973, Whelan decided to go to Eastern Oregon Fire School for a weekend class. While at the school, Whelan met someone with the state that helped him implement a state pilot program for training. To Whelan’s recollection, Stanfield Fire District was the first volunteer department in Eastern Oregon to have mandated training hours if you wanted to be a volunteer. Another change needed was a fire chief whose sole job was being the fire chief. Since the police chief acting as the fire chief didn’t make sense, the local board started to appoint volunteer firefighters as the fire chief. All the while, Whelan was still working at the Stanfield Hardware where he knew just about everyone in town. “I was the only one that was in town all the time. All of the sales people and anybody that had business in town, like the fire marshal for example, would come to the hardware store and I would kind of handle all the fire business while I was there too,” said Whelan. Then in 1978, Stanfield went from being a city rural combination department to a unified district. The volunteer chief at the time, Bob Smith, was working at the Hinkle Rail Yard and didn’t have enough time to take care of his chief duties so he asked if Whelan could take over the position. First Whelan gets a volunteer position while working at the hardware store, now the fire chief position. “So I became volunteer Fire Chief in 1978 at 28 years old. I remained chief until 1986 when I reached a point where I was spending more time on fire department business than I was on the hardware store so I told the board, you either find a new chief or you’re going to have to hire me because I can’t do both,” exclaimed Whelan. The board didn’t bat an eye. Whelan started as the first full time paid employee at Stanfield Fire District on January 1st of 1987.

Whelan not only held the title of Fire Chief at Stanfield Fire District but he has had many roles throughout the state over the years. To this day, Jim Whelan is still the District Liaison Officer (DLO) for the Department of Public Safety Standards & Training (DPSST). Coincidentally, the current Fire Chief of UCFD #1, Scott Stanton, replaced Whelan’s position on the DPSST board and Whelan took Stanton’s position as the DLO. As the DLO, Whelan covers all the fire departments in Gilliam, Morrow and Umatilla County and makes sure they are keeping up with their safety standards and training. Looking back when Whelan was coming up in the fire service, there wasn’t any such thing as a DLO. The only thing that mattered was putting out the fire. “When I started, my initial training was nonexistent. You got in the tender, followed the engines, and you put out the fire. That was it,” recalled Whelan. Things were a lot simpler back then. Even the mechanics of the fire engines and water tenders were simpler. Now if you look at the pump panel on a fire apparatus, it looks a lot more complicated than just pulling a lever to get your water. Personal protective equipment has come a long way too. Back then, Whelan’s attire consisted of an old cotton duck fire coat, an old civil defense helmet, and a pair of rubber boots, gloves and jeans that Whelan supplied on his own. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, volunteering was looked at as something to do that was fun, something that had a sense of purpose in the community. Whelan would even respond with one of his kids sometimes. “By the time my son was 12 years old, he could run the engine, couldn’t drive it, but he could operate the pump as well as 75% of my firemen,” exclaimed Whelan. In today’s world you would need a college degree to understand how to operate an engine. 

You’d have to look long and hard to find someone as humble and grateful for their time in the fire service as Jim Whelan is. This was never a job for him, rather a calling. “I didn’t make an impact, we just did what needed to be done,” he said. With that said, he did make an impact and he inspired many people over the years. Now when Whelan looks at his community he feels like he doesn’t know as many people but that’s what happens when towns grow and change over the years. Though to this day, Whelan has people come up to him and remind him of a time where he taught them in a class. “I see grown ups while I’m out that come up to me with a big smile and say ‘I remember when you taught me stop, drop, and roll when I was in grade school,’ and that makes me happy,” rejoiced Whelan. Everything that Whelan has done over the years he did for the community. “The community has allowed me to serve them, they gave me a job to do things that I would do for free, and I still do for free. I just want people to know how grateful we are for the support that they’ve given us over the years. Fire suppression’s just like everything else, EMS too, it’s not free. We have been blessed with wonderful support throughout my entire career,” expressed Whelan.

Every Thursday night is Umatilla County Fire District #1’s volunteer training night. Whelan shows up each and every Thursday. He enjoys nothing more than being able to work and help others. “I enjoy working a lot still but I need to try and stay more hands off now,” he explained. Sometimes when Chief Gorham is out of town Whelan will lead the training. Over the years Jim Whelan has taught in every fire department in Umatilla County. He’s probably taught more people how to operate a fire engine in the entire State of Oregon. He likes to think since he made a lot of mistakes throughout the years and can help younger volunteers not make those same mistakes. “You know, the things that really stick out in my mind are all the stupid things that I’ve done over my career. The longer I’m in the fire service the more I believe in God because somebody has to be watching out for us because we do some pretty stupid things,” Whelan stated. “Any mistake that I could make, I’ve probably made,” he added.

Stanfield Fire District has always been known for its community engagement over the years. Whelan has been there from the start at every parade and Fourth of July festival since the 1970s. Also, Whelan holds a golden ticket with being a pie judge at the Fourth of July pie contest each year. There isn’t one community event with Jim involved where good food isn’t served. Whelan has always been known for his barbecuing abilities while fellow volunteer and longtime friend, Eldon Marcum, is known for his baked beans. The two have known each other since Whelan first moved here in 1963. “We’ve been friends for a long time and we just do things together. He has his specialities and I have mine,” stated Whelan. “I can make beans too, but never quite as good as his,” he added. It’s hard to think that Whelan has been doing all of this for so long. 53 years of nonstop training, teaching, responding, everything, all of the above. It’s impressive to say the least. “I’ve had a great time over the years. I’ve met a lot of people, great people and made a lot of wonderful friends. That’s what I remember are the people and the good times we had,” said Whelan.

When Whelan isn’t working or volunteering his time, he enjoys spending time with his family and wife, Susan. The two enjoy gardening at their home. Susan enjoys growing different types of flowers while Jim likes to grow tomatoes and berries. “If you can’t eat it, I don’t grow it,” he said. Whelan and his wife now have five grandchildren they hope to travel and see more of now that the coronavirus has slowed down. This spring they are hoping to take some trips and spend time with the grandkids. 

It is our goal to bring the community closer with our District by telling the stories of the men and women who represent Umatilla County Fire District #1. It’s better to meet them, before you need them.

There were lots of memories and stories shared by Jim Whelan during this interview and it was hard to just pick a handful so here are a few more quotes from Jim about his time in the fire service.

“People appreciate that you’re giving your time to go out and help them. I wish more people were able to experience that feeling because, you know, there is nothing, maybe it’s my old age, but nothing can compare to that. It’s special. The fire service has been good to me. The area has been good to me. It’s a great place to be. I just have to say thank you.”

“We had a structure fire one time and fire was in the attic between the two roofs and we couldn’t get to it so it was taking forever to get the fire out but while we were trying to get into the attic to put the fire out, everybody else was packing up this lady’s antique furniture, stacking it on the sidewalk, and covering it. The fire ended up burning the whole roof off her house but she was so happy with us she baked a half a dozen pies and brought ’em down to fire station during a meeting one night. She thought we were wonderful and you know, sometimes it works really good, sometimes you walk away shaking your head thinking boy,  that did not go well.”

“Pat Ward, he was the Fire Marshal at that time and so in talking with the Hermiston Fire Chief, if Pat wants to do a student program too, we will. So we started it and I don’t know how many years we actually ran it but we put quite a few kids through there. Corey Gorham, now Battalion Chief of Training at UCFD #1, was the last class to go through the program. Tim Miears, who works for Hermiston Police Department now, he was in that class too. I had some really good kids in there.”