By Andrea Arnold
On December 1, 2023, the McBride District Fire Department will have a new chief.
After 43 years of service to the McBride community as Fire Chief, David Hruby is stepping down, and handing the department over to Courtney Lipke.
Sunday afternoon, Chief Hruby was stunned to walk into the fire hall in McBride for what he thought was an open house and recruitment event only to be greeted with cries of “Surprise!” and an onslaught of well wishes on his upcoming retirement.
“I was totally surprised,” said Hruby. “I can’t believe everyone kept it a secret.”
Deputy Chief Courtney Lipke and Senior member Christine Munroe each gave personal accounts of their involvement with the department and how Chief Hruby has impacted their lives.
BC Ambulance Paramedic Craig Arnold spoke of Chief Hruby’s history in the community and how he has worked to build and maintain relationships not only with other emergency responders, but also, beyond his role as fire chief, with the people who live in the valley.
Mayor Runtz addressed the hall full of people simply by saying that Chief Hruby is not only the best fire chief, but he is also the best kind of human, and MLA Shirley Bond spoke via video recording as she was unable to attend. Munroe also read off several letters of well wishes from former department members unable to be present.
Several other fire chiefs from the area spoke during the open mic portion of the afternoon as well as Regional District of Fraser Fort George Director Dannielle Alan. Councillor Joe Kolida recalled a few stories from when he was on the department alongside Chief Hruby, and how he appreciated the Chief’s discretion regarding who responded to some of the more serious calls, showing how much he cares about the members of the department.
The formal presentation portion concluded with a slideshow of Chief Hruby’s life so far and a toast to him complete with shots of Dr. Pepper (His favourite pop).
David Hruby began serving the community of McBride shortly after his arrival in the valley in 1980. He had a background in firefighting and was asked to take over the role of Fire Chief from Joe Sivecki. At the time it was a village department, but five years later it became the McBride District Volunteer Fire Department under the Regional District of Fraser Fort George.
Although Hruby had experience, first as a junior firefighter back in his home town then received more training through his time in the Navy, he says that this new role as the head of a department was scary.
Hruby said that although many people helped him along the way, there were two men specifically that stepped in to help guide him as he navigated the learning curve.
Dennis Montgomery was the Fire Chief in Mackenzie at the time. He helped Hruby build the McBride department’s extrication abilities.
“I had actually had my first extrication training in the Navy,” said Hruby. “Building the capacity for the department to help in vehicle incidents was an important step.”
Bill Arnold, Ambulance Chief for McBride at the time worked alongside Hruby in collecting all of the radio frequencies used by the many different services, not just emergency response, all throughout the region. This allowed for clear communication between agencies during emergency events. Much later, when the RCMP switched to a digital system, they also included one analog channel to maintain this open line of communication.
In the past 43 years, Hruby says there have been ups and downs. He chose a few of his favourite highlights to share.
One of the pivotal moments of his career was when the department paid off all their outstanding bills and were able to start purchasing new state of the art equipment, including new fire trucks.
In 1984, he and Marilyn Wheeler met with then Mayor, Steve Kolida and Ron Brown and negotiated a 99-year lease on the property where the fire hall now stands.
“I remember, I paid out of pocket, the one dollar lease amount,” said Hruby. “We started construction and moved into the hall in 1985.”
Hruby worked with McBride Secondary School teacher Kjell Valestrand to create a program that allows students to receive school credits for volunteering on the department.
“They have to volunteer and show up to get credits,” said Hruby. “This is still available to students of both McBride Secondary School as well as Robson Valley Junior Academy.”
Hruby said that he was deeply honoured to be one of the area residents awarded a Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Medallion by MP Bob Zimmer in 2022. This award recognized his work within the department as well as within the community, and the parts of his life that overlap the two. One of these areas is the relationship he has helped foster between the different emergency services within the valley.
Hruby looks back and is amazed at how far technology has come since he started. He remembers a time when the department was called out via an old air raid siren on the roof of the old Village office.
“CN dispatch would get the call,” he said. “They would then run to the Village office and sound the siren. We would have to respond to the office to receive the details of the call before heading off to attend. Now we all have cell phones, radios and pagers.”
He has held on to a small part of the valley’s fire department history through the old original hose reels that are mounted on the top of the current fire hall.
Hruby looks at all the members that are or have been a part of the department over the past 43 years as family, not just a part of an organization.
“The kids who have joined have become like my own kids,” he said. “I worked to keep them protected, both physically and mentally. My priority throughout my whole service has been the safety of the members. We all go out and we all come home.”
This feeling of family was one that was echoed in the letters read out during the celebration Sunday afternoon.
Hruby says that he has been thinking along the lines of retirement for a few years now.
“I can get down the bank into the ditch for a recovery pretty easily,” he said. “It’s the getting back out that is a problem. I’ve been seeing Deputy Chief Courtney Lipke as my replacement for a few years now, and I am confident he will do a good job.”
Hruby has been working with Lipke for some time, preparing him for the next big step. He has been stepping back during training and on scenes, putting Lipke in the position of being the one other members go to, or expect instruction from. Lipke has also been spearheading training for the department in new methods they can use on scene.
“Courtney is well versed in the fire service and he is a people person,” said Hruby. “He is 95 per cent ready, operationally speaking. The other 5 per cent that he still needs to learn is paperwork.”
Hruby says he will be working alongside Lipke in an administrative role to assist as he tackles that aspect.
Following the transition on December 1st, Hruby will continue to carry a radio and pager, on Lipke’s request, and will respond when called upon for assistance.
“I will miss it,” said Hruby. “Everyone said I wouldn’t do it. But I’m 72, and I’ve been doing this for 43 years. It’s time to let the younger generation take over. He can do it.”
Incoming Fire Chief Courtney Lipke was born and raised in McBride, and has been an active firefighter for 20 years as he has moved up through the deartment.
“I tried moving away twice,” he said. “It didn’t stick. Doors opened that allowed me to move back home.”
It was during one of those times away from McBride, that Lipke joined the volunteer fire department in Hope BC. His boss at the time, and long time family friend was a member, and convinced Lipke to give it a shot.
“I thought it sounded like something fun to do,” he said. “I was hooked after my very first call. It was a car fire.”
Lipke said he has always been drawn to things that are high risk and fast paced.
“I am the type of person that runs into or towards things that most other people run away from,” he said. “I didn’t realize how perfect fire fighting was for me until that first call as I ran towards the burning car.”
He also remembers feeling completely calm as he walked into a burning house alongside an older more experienced member of the department.
“He freaked out and went back outside,” said Lipke. “I think my comfort level, what I feel is safe for me, is a lot different than other people’s definition of safe.”
After about two and a half years with the department in Hope, Lipke moved back to McBride. He found he had common interests with members on the McBride District Fire Department. He had also had so much fun giving back to the community of Hope through service, that he decided to serve the community of McBride the same way.
Prior to joining the McBride department, Lipke had not had any extrication experience. He admits that initially, the equipment and the processes scared him. However, through training and careful hands on experience, he is now comfortable with both.
It was never Lipke’s goal to become chief. He says that being a part of the department and using his skills to help those in their time of need was enough. His work ethic and his willingness to serve have taken him through a series of events over the past 20 years. This has resulted in opportunities for him to move up the ranks within the department to his current role as Deputy Chief.
The desire to be a service to the community is what keeps him going.
“If we don’t have volunteers, who will come when there is a fire, or when you’ve had your worst day on the highway?” he said. “I want to see the community continue to have a healthy and working fire department”
Lipke says that over the past year or so, Chief Hruby has been giving Lipke more responsibilities on calls and during training, in preparation for the transition.
“I am looking forward to following in Dave’s footsteps, mentoring and guiding the members as he has mentored and guided me, (and others)” said Lipke. “Through this, I hope to help them continue to become safer and better trained to do their jobs.”
Lipke feels that, being someone who grew up in the valley, there are those who have a certain view of who he is and that adds some pressure as he looks forward to this new role.
“I am excited and terrified,” said Lipke. “It is a lot of responsibility. Looking at Dave and what he has done, I have big shoes to fill with mixed feelings.”