Mich. fire chief retires after 50-year career

When Bill Gruppen joined the department every firefighter had to be voted in unanimously by his fellow teammates

By Andrea Goodell
The Holland Sentinel

ZEELAND, Mich. — Zeeland Fire Chief Bill Gruppen started out like any kid who wanted to be a firefighter and “chase fires,” but he soon came to love the camaraderie of the team more than anything else.

“The firefighter family is referred to often, and you’ll see that when somebody gets hurt at a fire. I mean, it’s everybody supporting that person. … If they go to the hospital for treatment, everybody will be going there to visit them,” he said. “Every time you go in, your life depends on somebody else.”

It has been more than five decades since a 21-year-old Gruppen first the Zeeland Fire Department in 1964.

He was first elected assistant chief in 1973. By the time he retires in November, Gruppen will have been chief for 38 years.

Much has changed in his 52 years on the department.

When Gruppen joined the force, it had fewer than half the firefighters it has now, but all 15 men showed up to every fire call then. Now, with the advent of manufacturing in Zeeland (the city’s 5,000-person population doubles each day with workers), many of the 33 part-paid firefighters can’t leave the factory line to help at each call.

Every firefighter had to be voted in unanimously by his fellow teammates. Now, each firefighter has to go through the academy to qualify.

He’s also accomplished much in that time.

“We worked hard to get this station here,” he said, sitting in his office in the top floor of the Main Avenue fire station built in 2003.

The north end fire station, built in the mid-'70s was an even harder sell, he said.

“That whole area was farmland. When we started building that station, Roosevelt Street was a gravel road. Everybody said, ‘What are you doing out here?’” he said.

Now, that area is filled with industry and the two fire stations ensure that the town bisected by railroad tracks is never cut off from fire service.

As it does with many kids, Gruppen’s fascination with the fire department began long before he joined as a young man.

“I liked the shininess,” he said before adding the other thing a young Bill Gruppen liked about the fire service — “The work that they did, protecting people.”

“As a young boy, I had my bike, and I would follow the fire trucks when the whistle went,” Gruppen said. “You could see where they went, because when they turned a corner, they would leave some water on the street (sloshed out of the top of the tanks).”

- The city has begun advertising for the position with applications due at the end of the month. Interviews are slated for August with a recommendation to the city council expected in September. The timeline would give the newly appointed chief time to train with Gruppen before his November retirement, City Clerk Karen Jipping said.

Gruppen and his wife, Sally, plan to live in Zeeland, but to travel more, something he never felt he could do for any length of time.

“You always have the fire service in your mind,” he said.

It’s a habit that’s hard to break.

“I’m sure I’m always going to have my ear to the ground, to hear what’s going on,” Gruppen said.

However, maybe he’ll get to see that cabin Up North for more than a weekend at a time.

“He bleeds Zeeland, let’s put it that way,” said Art Grimes, who has spent close to 40 years on the fire department. “He’s been very dedicated to the fire service all of his career. He’s a very sincere and dedicated public servant.”

Gruppen has built up a department for the city where industry requires serious fire protection, Grimes said.

In doing all of that, Gruppen has “always been very approachable” and worked to build relationships with people and with businesses, Grimes said.

Gruppen has only one piece of advice for the next chief:

“Take care of your people,” he said. “Address their needs. With so many people, there’s a lot of needs.”

Copyright 2016 Holland Sentinel, Mich.

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