Caleb Whitney Appointed Gibraltar Fire Chief

Caleb Whitney joined the fire service in 1996, the day Kiehnau’s Service burned. He lives across the street from the business in downtown Baileys Harbor, and when he came home from work and saw the flames he asked then-fire chief Gary Nelson how to volunteer.

“Gary was probably thinking ‘oh great, another wannabe,’ so they say,” Whitney said. “But the rest is history.”

Caleb Whitney, Gibraltar Fire Chief. Photo by Len Villano.

During the next 17 years, Whitney climbed the ranks of the Baileys Harbor Fire Department and earned several state and national certifications for firefighting and emergency response. He was recently Assistant Chief of the Baileys Harbor department, but stepped down to take a bigger role in Gibraltar. On May 1, Whitney was appointed Gibraltar Fire Chief at the town board meeting.

“We need to have someone in our department who’s going to be fire chief,” said town board member Dick Skare at the meeting on May 1. “We talked with Caleb Whitney, he expressed an interest in the position. We interviewed him as a town board, talked to Chris [Hecht, interim fire chief] and decided.”

Whitney admits he’s not a typical fire chief, considering his earrings, National Public Radio preference and art degree, but he had what Gibraltar needed. He was qualified and willing.

That’s really the nature of a volunteer firefighter: well prepared and willing to serve.

And serve they do. Whitney estimated the Gibraltar Fire Department has a core of eight volunteers who respond to about 250 calls a year. Many of the volunteers work in emergency response departments in other municipalities, too.

Departments in bigger municipalities are specialized and trained to respond to particular emergencies, but the fire departments in Northern Door, like Gibraltar, have to do it all. The Gibraltar Fire Department has an off-road brush truck to respond to wild land fires, snowmobiles for emergencies on the trails and boats for emergencies on the water. The firefighters are trained to respond to medical calls in the state parks, even to use ropes to rescue someone on a bluff.

“In some ways we’re almost mercenaries,” Whitney said. “We’re responding to a much larger community than is economically possible to sustain.”

“You are definitely part of something that’s bigger than you,” Whitney said about the fire service. “It truly is stuff you can’t do anywhere else.” Photo by Len Villano.

The Gibraltar Fire Department has relied on donations and grants to buy much of its equipment.

Local volunteer firefighters have a big responsibility, and it takes a lot of time, training and sacrifice to be part of the team. Whitney wants to create an atmosphere that’s productive and fun so volunteers want to return. He doesn’t see his job as barking commands at the volunteers, but sees the structure of the department as an upside-down triangle with the chief at the bottom of the pyramid supporting the volunteers.

“Fundamentally there’s no obligation to respond as a volunteer structure,” Whitney said.

Whitney wants to recruit more volunteers to join local fire departments. Although it’s best to find recruits who know how to use a pickaxe, he’d enthusiastically train someone who’s never picked up a shovel. Many firefighters like the opportunity to learn how to drive boats and snowmobiles, or go to training sessions that involve breaking down doors and cutting holes through walls.

Plus, volunteer firefighters serve a community that needs them, and get to be part of a team.

“You are definitely part of something that’s bigger than you,” Whitney said. “It truly is stuff you can’t do anywhere else.”