New fire chief talks past, present and future of Aspen department
September 25, 2011
ASPEN – Willard Clapper Jr. is the fire chief-elect of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department. He is a 32-year veteran volunteer and the first chief the body of volunteers has elected since Darryl Grob in 1996.
Clapper’s father was a 25-year veteran of the fire department and chief for 14 of those years.
The Aspen Times recently spoke with Clapper about his new position, his role with the department and how he hopes to uphold the sense of pride that has existed in the fire department for decades.
It’s actually going along quite nicely. I’m pleasantly surprised; everyone seems to be excited about having a new volunteer chief, as has been our history. People are participating at a very high level in terms of meeting with me, talking to me, and what I’m doing right now is just collecting information. I’ve been talking to all the officers and most of the firefighters, just trying to gather where they are and what’s the state of the fire department at this point.
The thing I want to emphasize is there is nothing wrong with this department. Just because we changed the style of chiefs, doesn’t mean there is anything wrong. If there’s a fire, we’re there. If there’s a car wreck, we’re there. We are still a highly qualified, highly capable fire department.
I, like everybody around here, I do everything. I love to flyfish. I raft. I hike. I bicycle. I play with my dog. I hunt. I’m an outdoors type of person. Indoors, I like to read, I like to watch movies occasionally, that kind of stuff. I like to cook, I garden, a little bit of everything.
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Technically, I’m retired. I was a teacher for nearly 30 years in the Aspen school district. I taught middle school primarily. I also coached at the high school level. I coached football and baseball. I also coached girls middle school basketball. I actually started that program; it didn’t exist – of course that was a long time ago now.
When I retired, which is now coming on 11 years ago, I started, along with my oldest friend, a nonprofit educational organization called Tomorrow’s Voices. Tomorrow’s Voices is a supplemental educational organization. What we do is we teach the Roaring Fork School District, and some in Aspen School District. We teach classes dealing with ethics and citizenship and engagement, getting involved. We also do some consulting with the school districts, and also teach seminars for educators, for teachers.
Oh, it’s a long family tradition. My father was a firefighter in, I believe, 1958. He was the chief and was in the fire department for 25 years. I think he was the first person to do that. And then my family tradition, all my brothers (four), with the exception of one, were involved in the fire department. … There was a time when I first got on the department in 1978 and you look at the people in the (departmental) picture, half the people were either directly related or related by marriage to me. And that’s kind of the way the town was at that time. It was a closely knit, small community, and everyone did actually know everyone, and everybody worked together.
I think it has a lot to do with longevity. I’ve been in the department for many, many years. That’s first. Secondly, I think I’m well-respected in the department as a leader and as a firefighter. I’ve been involved with the master planning process for the last few years, and that puts me in a unique position in that I really have a picture of the whole overall organization, including the fire district, as well as the volunteer fire department.
Actually, there’s a lot. First is that because it is a volunteer organization, it has a different set of rules. They aren’t rules that are written, but unwritten – things like, because it’s a volunteer organization, the expectations are not always the same as they would be for a paid department. In a paid department you can say, “You will do this, this and this or you’re fired.” In a volunteer organization, you can’t be quite that stringent. You still have expectations, and you still have minimum standards, but you have to understand there are extenuating circumstances because it’s a volunteer organization. If we set up a strict set of standards to equal say, a New York City fire department or something, I’m not sure all the firefighters could do it. And that’s not to say that they’re not trained, because they are. But what the paid firefighters might have to do in six months, we might do in a year. The timetable is extended a little bit – but I want to make it very clear, our firefighters here are amazingly well-trained and talented people.
Sure, the difficulty of dealing with volunteers. There’s a positive side, which is fairly obvious. We are all local people and similarly interested. Also on that side, you’re dealing with 36 individuals that don’t have to be here. So there is good and bad. It’s enormously satisfying, but it can also be enormously frustrating. My dad and I used to talk about that. He used to get to the point where he’d say, “I’ve had it. I have had it. I’m done.” He quit one time when he was the chief. They elected another guy, and within a year they had gotten him back in.
That’s how I see my job right now. One of my jobs is to try and reinvigorate that sense of pride and accomplishment. When I first got on the department, it was easy. There was so much pride. Not just being part of the fire department, but actually doing something. And there is something very special about putting out a fire, or saving a life or getting a cat out of a tree.
It’s very difficult for a group of people to train to the level that we do and then not get called on to use that expertise. It’s very difficult. My task and one of my goals is to try to inspire the firefighters to take pride in those things over which we have some control. Those accomplishments we are making. We train to a very high standard. That’s one thing of which we can be very proud. We are involved in the community, and we want to continue to improve that. That’s something that we can be proud of.
The most difficult task is always the same with the fire department. It’s any large-scale event. If something big were to happen, that is far and away the most difficult.
To be honest, I’ve had people ask me that. They ask, “Are you doing this because of your dad?” I say, “No.” There was no consideration given to taking this job as a part of our family tradition. I’m very proud and I’m very humbled by being selected to be in this position, and a lot of people tell me that my dad is smiling down on me right now, and I believe that. I think it’s a wonderful thing, but I certainly didn’t pursue the position as part of some familial goal to live up to my father’s name.