Disaster services pioneer leaves legacy of planning

When one of Central Alberta’s most disastrous train derailments occurred nine years ago, the highest ranking Red Deer Emergency Services officer capable of handling the situation was Kelly Wilson.

Platoon chief Kelly Wilson will retire in July after 35 years on the job.

Platoon chief Kelly Wilson will retire in July after 35 years on the job.

When one of Central Alberta’s most disastrous train derailments occurred nine years ago, the highest ranking Red Deer Emergency Services officer capable of handling the situation was Kelly Wilson.

The 55-year-old Wilson, who is on the job for the last time today after 35 years, recalls that he only had a short eight hours off to sleep during a 40-hour stretch at the time of the derailment.

On Feb. 2, 2001, a ruptured tank car leaked 71 tonnes of anhydrous ammonia during the train derailment near the Canadian Pacific Railway yard below the 67th Street overpass at Hwy 2.

About 1,300 Red Deer residents were evacuated. One person was killed in the incident when he attempted to walk by the wreck and was overcome by toxic fumes shortly after it occurred and before emergency personnel arrived on scene.

Wilson, who has risen through the department ranks from a front-line firefighter to platoon chief, remembers all the higher ranking officers were away that Friday night.

“I was working up in the EOC (emergency operation centre) at City Hall.

“All the bigger chiefs were away so it was down to my level.

“It was different, you know. It’s what we practise but you never think it’s going to happen.”

Wilson has been the city’s disaster co-ordinator since 2000.

He also developed the planning and setup of the EOC when the year 2000 scare was projected to disrupt worldwide computers. Of course, nothing happened, but the plan was established.

The longest serving current emergency services member also helped develop a plan for use in case the Dickson Dam breaks or a flood occurs.

“It takes six hours for the water to reach Red Deer from the dam.”

Sure enough, a few years ago the Red Deer River flooded, causing widespread damage to roads, trails and nodes in the Waskasoo Park area.

Many thousands of dollars in damage resulted “but not to the level we were prepared and planned for,” Wilson said during a break on his off days where he manages a tree farm.

“The city has always tried to be proactive when it comes to these types of events,” he added.

Wilson will miss his workmates.

“There’s a certain brotherhood with it and that will be hard at first not being around the other people,” he said.

“It’s like having a second family because you eat, sleep and then depend on each other in a time of crisis,” he said.

“I guess I’ve always enjoyed helping people in bad situations and knowing in some way you have helped save their property if you stop a fire as soon as possible.”

Married to Sheila, the couple have two grown children.

“I’m going to miss all the school kids coming to the stations,” Wilson said. “I don’t think there’s a kid in Red Deer past Grade 6 who hasn’t been to the firehall at one time or another. It’s always fun to show them around and give them a little feel of the job.

“There’s no job like it, that’s for sure.”

Wilson helped deliver two babies when expectant mothers gave birth before reaching hospital.

“That’s something special.”

He said the parents of those kids used to bring their children into the station yearly on their birthdays to show them who helped bring them into the world.

In addition, to his emergency co-ordinatior duties, Wilson has worked with the Red Deer County Fire Department on planning aid.

He’s also been the department’s driving instructor and worked on numerous committees.

Firefighting has changed significantly in the last three decades, he said.

Previously when firefighters responded to a structure fire it was a matter of knocking it down quickly.

Now, he said, there’s much more for a firefighter to worry about with the increase in toxic chemicals.

“Haz mat (hazardous material) has changed that. You have to slow down when responding to a situation involving chemicals and know exactly what you’re dealing with. If you don’t, it will kill you.”

Wilson’s official retirement date is July 18, which will leave him with exactly 35 years of service after starting on July 18, 1975.

jwilson@bprda.wpengine.com