CANMORE – After 35 years as a firefighter, Walter Gahler is calling it a career.
The longtime fire chief for Canmore Fire-Rescue wrapped up his final shift on Jan. 7, excited to hand over the reins to a new generation of leadership as the service looks set to continue to grow and a new fire hall is on the horizon.
“It’s been a capstone in my career,” Gahler said of his time with Canmore Fire-Rescue. “This has been the most challenging, most rewarding and most growth-inducing professional opportunity I’ve ever had. I’m at ease retiring, having had the opportunity to help lead a team that’s in growth and in transition. You don’t get many opportunities like that in life and I’m very lucky to have had it.”
Gahler came to Canmore after more than 30 years as part of Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, where he was anticipating an end to his career until he learned the fire chief position was open in Canmore.
Gahler and his wife were already looking at potentially moving to Canmore. A cold call led him to apply for the top fire job in town, landing him an interview and starting the position within six weeks.
As a smaller fire department with 48 staff, including eight full-time firefighters, three administrators and the remainder being part-time firefighters, he said the crews can “do a lot with a little.”
“The folks that work in these environments are unbelievably dedicated and willing and able to make those transitions. … You reach a point where you need more resources, and that’s part of the fire chief’s responsibility is to tell that story to both the town administration and the public," he said.
Canmore Mayor Sean Krausert extended his gratitude to Gahler for his commitment to this community.
“On behalf of the community, we thank you for your service – your career – but especially the highlight of your career for us has been the last four-and-a-half years and we appreciate all that you’ve done,” said the mayor during Canmore council’s Dec. 22 committee of the whole meeting.
While Gahler never intended to be in the position for longer than he was, he said it was important to leave on a strong note and with new leadership ready to guide the department.
“I wanted to finish up while I was still part of the solution and not becoming part of the problem. You reach a point where it gets to be a little bit of Groundhog Day and maybe you’re not as sharp and on top of it as you could be," he said. "I want to finish well and things were running well and 35 years is a good tour. At a point, you just know and it’s time to let the next generation grab the tiller and steer.”
Gahler said his direction to a career in fire services began at 12 years of age when his parents signed him up for air cadets, noting he had “lots of energy and no focus or direction.”
After five years as an air cadet, he travelled and studied music, then began looking at a career in public service. He looked at the coast guard, the military, policing and forestry services, but fire services stood out.
When he came home from a military recruitment centre, he was reading the paper and saw an ad that Edmonton was hiring firefighters.
“I read the job ad, and it checked a lot of boxes I was looking for with public service – excitement, teamwork, training, structure, to be there when people need you and I started boot camp eight months later," he said.
Gahler began as a firefighter in the Edmonton Fire Rescue Services in 1987 and climbed the ladder to such roles as platoon training coordinator, technical rescue team coordinator, fire officer, captain and chief of logistics and services.
“I used to joke if you lived in it, wore it, used it or drove it, it came across my desk,” Gahler said of shifting into an administration role in 2013.
He joined the Canmore department in 2017 as its chief and continued in the role until his recent retirement.
“It’s such a rewarding, challenging and fulfilling career,” he said, adding he looks forward to not having an emergency pager in sight 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Gahler said the Canmore role offered an exciting opportunity and noted he will remain in the community with his wife – though likely not as much for the -30 Celsius winter days – and with family in nearby Calgary, Edmonton and Victoria.
Though no one moment stands out for him, Gahler said it was the opportunity to help people in their worst moments that he’ll remember most.
“I can think of dozens, if not hundreds of events in a small way we made a difference in somebody’s worst day of their life. It’s cliché, but it’s really true. … When something happens, we do our best to make it a little bit better,” he said.
“We can’t always fix it and sometimes tragedy happens, but just being there to help somebody when they’re having a really terrible day. That is probably the biggest event that has made an impact on me. It was those little personal moments that marked the pride in my career.”
As he exits public service, Gahler praised the department and its local crews in the community.
“You have an amazing public service, you’ve got an amazing fire department and an amazing group of people that are working really hard in a way to protect their communities,” he said of Canmore Fire-Rescue. “It’s a great team that’s multidisciplinary with trained medical response, general rescue response in addition to the nuts and bolts of firefighting.”