Van Walraven honored for boosting national fire safety
November 14, 2015
Ed Van Walraven retired as Aspen fire marshal last year with little fanfare, by his choice, after 30 years with the district.
But recognition has a way of catching up with doers of good deeds.
The American Fire Sprinkler Association honored Van Walraven recently as the Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year for 2015. He earned the accolade for groundbreaking work to get sprinkler systems installed in single-family homes.
"I'm totally overwhelmed by the whole thing," Van Walraven said. "I'm in awe."
The sprinkler association typically honors people who have taken action in large, influential markets. It's unusual that someone from a small town like Aspen got the recognition, he said.
Getting involved in fire-safety issues was the last thing on Van Walraven's mind when he moved to Aspen in 1970. He followed the typical path of a ski bum — "bartending, stuff like that," he said. He eventually got a job as a dispatcher for emergency-response agencies and he also became friends with some volunteer firefighters. They convinced him to join the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department 30-some years ago.
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It was a time of growth for the department. Wayne Vandemark was hired as the original fire marshal, overseeing everything from inspections of new construction to fire-prevention efforts. Van Walraven applied for the fire inspector's job.
"Shortly after I got into the job, I realized we could do some good here," he said. Second-home construction was going nuts in Aspen and Pitkin County. Just about everything that was getting built was larger than 5,000 square feet.
Van Walraven said it made sense to him that the homes should include a sprinkler system to help save occupants' lives in case of fire and also to minimize loss of property and possessions. Safety of firefighters also was a big part of his reasoning. Many of the homes were further than five minutes away from the fire station. Without sprinklers, firefighters would likely be responding to structures fully engulfed by flames. That would lead to greater risk for firefighters.
He talked through the issues with Vandemark, who told him if he felt that strongly about it, he should try to get residential sprinklers approved by the city of Aspen and Pitkin County.
"He was my mentor and friend," Van Walraven said of Vandemark.
Van Walraven focused on explaining how sprinklers could help prevent loss of life and property. He encountered little resistance in government or in the local building community. By the mid-1980s, the city and county adopted the requirement on homes larger than 5,000 square feet and more than five minutes from the fire station. The requirement was later amended to say sprinklers are required in structures larger than 5,000 square feet and deemed difficult to access by the fire marshal.
"It was fairly new to require residential fire sprinklers to single-family homes," Van Walraven said. "We kind of set the ball rolling."
There weren't that many other places where 5,000 square foot homes were the norm, like in Aspen. But soon after the sprinkler requirement was enacted in Aspen, other towns and cities took note.
"I started getting a lot of calls," Van Walraven said.
Now, building codes recommend sprinkler systems for all sizes of single-family homes. Local jurisdictions can opt out, but many houses across the country now include sprinkler systems.
"I don't know that we were the only catalyst for that," Van Walraven said.
The American Fire Sprinkler Association views it differently. The organization credited Van Walraven with improving life safety in his community, state and eventually the nation through his actions. The organization gives the Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year award to a person who isn't directly involved in the industry.
In Aspen, Van Walraven succeeded his mentor, Vandemark, as fire marshal and served in that role for 20 years before retiring in 2014. He remains active in fire safety issues. He is president of the Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District's board of directors. He sits on technical committess with the Fire Marshals Association of Colorado and he belongs to a national coalition that promotes sprinklers in single-family homes. There has been pushback from the homebuilding industry.
"I don't want to see this die on the vine, so to speak," Van Walraven said. He believes it is undeniable that a sprinkler system is worth the added expense, so he will keep promoting them, just as he did in Aspen nearly 30 years ago.