North Tahoe Fire veterans retire
As the two retired firefighters sit in their chief’s office they seem almost uncomfortable.
North Tahoe Fire Protection District Chief Duane Whitelaw is in the process of lavishing Fire Captain Bill Atchley and Firefighter Dirk Schoonmaker with praise.
“Both of these guys are extremely hardworking and dedicated to their profession and to the district. It will be hard to replace that dedication,” Whitelaw said.
The two men represent 41 years of institutional knowledge, and Whitelaw points out, “you lose a lot of that when you bring in new people.”
The district lost another long-time employee in March. Administrative Specialist Kip Cross retired after 17 years with the district, bringing the total years of experience the district is losing to nearly 60 years.
Cross’ biggest accomplishment was the 1993 merging of the North Tahoe Fire Department and the Tahoe City Fire Department into the current district, she said.
“It was a good thing to do, but a difficult thing to do ” it was difficult logistically and politically,” Cross said explaining that some community members were resistant to the change.
With a background in bookkeeping, accounting and law enforcement dispatch she began working as the only administrative assistant the district had in 1991.
“Bill [Atchley] recommended me because I worked with his wife Kelly who was a dispatcher too,” she said.
Promoted to administrative specialist in 2002, the 25-year West Shore local said her job included many tasks and that currently two people have been hired to get it done.
“[The job included] everything about running the fire department besides squirting water on the fire and running an ambulance,” she said.
The chief recognized the vast responsibilities Cross managed.
“Being a small district necessitates individuals wear many hats and Kip fit that bill,” Whitelaw said.
He credited her for building the accounting and human resources systems that the district uses to this day.
“She was a key team player in the district’s management team, her talents are very much appreciated by the board and myself and she will be sorely missed,” Whitelaw said.
Cross, 55, said she’ll have no problem slipping into the retirement lifestyle. She said she plans on playing more golf with her extra free time.
Tall, blond and 50 years old, Dirk Schoonmaker looks like a “firefighter” with his close-cropped haircut and blue eyes. Originally from Ohio, the former mechanical engineer moved to Lake Tahoe in 1985 to pursue a better quality of life, he said. When he arrived, the former Memorex employee wanted something more out of life.
“When I moved here I wanted to do something for my community,” he said.
A position with Alpine Meadows’ disabled ski school found him meeting a volunteer firefighter who introduced Schoonmaker to the profession.
“I realized it was a pretty cool career,” he said.
After a part-time stint with the district in 1989 he started full time three years later. Schoonmaker will miss “running the calls and going out on emergencies,” although some of those emergencies have ended in tragedy. As he recalled one such incident his voice wavered and moisture formed in the corners of his eyes.
“I had to perform CPR on this two- or three-year-old boy,” he said, cradling his hands in the shape of a tiny skull. “He had run out in front of a car and it crushed his head. He didn’t make it.”
Now it is time to move on for the father of two young children.
His plans include starting up a handy-man business and participating in more rescue operations with as a member of the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue group. Noting that recently he has missed his 5-year-old’s ballet recital and 7-year-old’s open-house school celebration, he said with a smile of anticipation that he plans on devoting more time to family events.
Surrounded by more than 50 friends and co-workers at a West Shore beach park, Fire Captain Bill Atchley ” also known by his nickname and former title FMB (Fire Marshall Bill) ” listened to speeches dedicated to his accomplishments, received official commendations and experienced a bit of good-natured ribbing about past exploits on Thursday afternoon.
The district schedules a once-a-year gathering for retirements and commendations, which Atchley, Schoonmaker and Cross will take part in, but Chief Whitelaw said “FMB” holds such a standing in the community that the afternoon barbecue was organized by forces beyond his control.
The 36-year public safety veteran actually began his career in law enforcement in the 1970s where he grew up in Marin County. He worked first as a police officer then an ambulance company worker and California Highway Patrol dispatcher before moving to Lake Tahoe in 1982.
He moved with an old friend, he said, planning on staying “no longer than five years.” He began his career with the local fire department that same year. He got married and raised children while he ascended the ranks quickly, going from firefighter, top lieutenant to captain and finally to marshall. He decided to go back to the captain’s position in 2001.
His bosses, co-workers and friends credit him with being faithful to fire protection and community service.
“Bill is somebody who has dedicated his life to serving the community,” said the Placer County Sheriff’s Sergeant Bill Langton. “His vast knowledge of the area and of the resources available in the community [will be missed].”
The knowledge Langton talked about is what another regional fire protection official said allowed Atchley to streamline a cooperative emergency resource system called mutual aid.
“He built the systems within the mutual aid network that makes it operate smoother and more efficiently,” said Jim Marquis, former assistant chief for the governor’s office of emergency services.
The Tahoe Basin presents unique communication challenges, he explained, with its several counties and public safety agencies.
“He was the one guy who got it ” Bill was a magician,” Marquis said.
Thursday, Marquis presented Atchley with a commendation for his work on the system within the Tahoe Basin Operational Area, otherwise known as the “Devil’s triangle.”
Among his awards for the evening, Atchley was presented with the first bronze ax forged with the North Tahoe Fire logo, according to Battalion Chief Pat Dillon. The award without the logo is customarily awarded to firefighters serving for 20 years or more.
Although not a personal friend, Kate Dargan, the state fire marshall for California, said she was familiar with Atchley’s reputation.
“He is one of those behind-the-scenes people that could piece the puzzle together,” Dargan said, who made the drive from her Napa Valley home for the barbecue.
Dargan, who is no stranger to celebrations, said she was impressed by the turnout at Thursday’s party.
“The number of people here is amazing,” she said. “You go to an event like this out of respect ” these people are not here to see or be seen.”
Younger firefighters like Scott Whitham who have worked alongside Atchley said the respect comes from his willingness to listen to different opinions ” even from the lower ranks.
“You are part of the team and part of the decision-making process,” Whitham said.
Atchley, father of two grown children, will likely be a grandfather at the time of print (his daughter was in labor Thursday evening) plans on leaving his long-time digs for Brookings, Oregon, he said. But not before he continues with the district on a part-time basis to help, among other things the transition for the next operators of the mutual aid system.