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Captain Jim Spell dies following cancer battle

Fire service leader, FireRescue1 contributor used writing to share his cancer experience with other firefighters

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By FireRescue1 Staff

VAIL, Colo. — Captain Jim Spell, a 33-year veteran of the Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services and longtime contributor to FireRescue1, died on April 5 after a short battle with cancer.

Over the past year, Spell wrote about his cancer journey, highlighting the power of connection and hope, detailing the reality of chemotherapy, and offering guidance for how to “think like a firefighter and act like a patient.”

Some of Spell’s fire service accomplishments and notable contributions include:

  • Creating the first student-resident fire science program west of the continental divide.
  • Forming the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee.
  • Initiating a first responder scholarship for Colorado Mountain College while on the board of Starting Hearts.
  • Founding HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, advising businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization.
  • Winning six IAFF Media Awards for his writing.

Spell is also the author of two books, “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service” and “Essays for Firefighters: Path to Officership”.

FireRescue1 Executive Editor Marc Bashoor reflected on Spell’s impact on the fire service:

“Jim and I spoke about the Vail fire science student-resident program, which was influenced and modeled to some degree after the University of Maryland fire science program and the student relationship with the College Park VFD, part of the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department. I believe these often-unheralded student programs are a bedrock for the fire service future. While Jim made significant impacts through hazmat programs, I believe his most significant contributions will be measured by his students, whether the fire science program student achievements or those who attended his presentations. Even after his own cancer diagnosis, Jim the instructor advised those of us who will find ourselves in this battle, to ‘think like a firefighter, but act like a patient.’ A teacher he was through his own battles, and a teacher and friend he will remain, evidenced in the impact all of us, his students, will continue to have.”

Firefighting wasn’t Spell’s first career. Spell worked in television production and was a touring musician, as a drummer, for the Wright Brothers Band. Spell’s travels took him to Colorado and he worked a variety of jobs before becoming a career firefighter.

Spell is survived by his wife, Pam, son CJ and many extended family members and friends.

Spell’s obituary concludes with this quote from Spell:

“So when a man shakes your hand after a call, accept his gratitude with satisfaction and pride on behalf of all firefighters present and past. When a child comes into the firehouse staring wide-eyed in awe and reverence, don’t greet her with your problems of the day. Elevate yourself to her level and reflect the gift that is our profession. Share with them the secret that only firefighters carry — there are no heroes, only heroic acts. Describe a collective courage specified at great cost and given to all of us without condition.”