Craig Fire/Rescue Chief Chris Nichols, right, will hand over the reins to deputy fire chief Bill Johnston on Dec. 1. Nichols, who's served almost 23 years for the department, 3 1/2 as chief, announced his retirement at Thursday's fire board meeting. He said he's satisfied to be leaving the department in better shape than when he first took over.

Photo by Jerry Raehal

Craig Fire/Rescue Chief Chris Nichols, right, will hand over the reins to deputy fire chief Bill Johnston on Dec. 1. Nichols, who's served almost 23 years for the department, 3 1/2 as chief, announced his retirement at Thursday's fire board meeting. He said he's satisfied to be leaving the department in better shape than when he first took over.

Siren going silent

After decades of chasing alarms, Craig Fire/Rescue chief preparing for retirement

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— The call came out of nowhere.

The scene: Colorado Highway 13 southbound. The wreck: twisted metal, scattered shards of glass. The woman: critically injured, clinging to life.

Chris Nichols and his Craig Fire/Rescue comrades responded to the emergency.

They administered CPR on-site, on the way to the hospital, in the emergency room.

Nothing could be done. The woman didn't make it.

An ER doctor broke the news to the departed's family members. Nichols and other firefighters were walking by as it happened.

Nichols says he's made a habit out of "trying not to remember details." Trying to keep his mind on the work. On helping people who need it. On serving the community. On avoiding the faces people wear in their worst hour.

On keeping it all compartmentalized.

This call, however, was different. This one latched on.

"Just to see the family breaking down," said the man who would become chief, "that's never easy. That one stuck with me."

For Nichols, it's been almost 23 years of memories - some good, some not so good - with the department he joined in 1986. However, his tenure is coming to a close.

Nichols announced his retirement, effective at the end of the month, at Thursday's fire board meeting. Deputy Fire Chief Bill Johnston, himself a 22-year veteran, replaces Nichols on Dec. 1.

"Being an effective leader of any organization, you want to leave it better than it was when you took over," Nichols said. "I think we're there."

The installment of a 10-year capital equipment replacement plan, last year's approval of a mill levy increase to fund the plan, a sound budget and an "extremely strong officer corps," among other advantages, factored into the chief's decision.

The fire board praised Nichols' service.

"I have been honored to have served in some capacity or another with you since day one," board chairman Byron Willems said.

"As a member of the community, I want to say job well done," board member Tony Maneotis said.

Willems said he's comfortable with the decision to turn over the chief's position to Johnston.

"I feel equally as confident with this appointment as I am with the chief that's leaving," Willems said.

Nearly half of Nichols' 52 years have been spent chasing fire calls for Craig Fire/Rescue. He's gone on 60 to 70 percent of the department's total calls, equating to a number somewhere in the thousands, during his time.

And for that long, he's maintained the time-tested practice required for a life on-call: keeping a pager with him at all times, keeping the pager propped beside his bed, laying out clothes nearby and slip-on shoes next to the front door in case a call comes in the middle of the night.

"You have to know where your pager is your entire life," Nichols said.

A native of Silver Spring, Md., a suburb between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Nichols earned degrees in journalism and business management from West Virginia University. While in college, he worked at McDonald's part-time.

In 1984, he moved to Craig and bought the current McDonald's restaurant. He also owns a franchise in Steamboat Springs. A conversation with a local firefighter in 1986 piqued Nichols' interest, and he soon joined the department.

His first call was a structure fire near the Yampa River.

"Extremely excited," Nichols said of the call. "That's why everybody joins this organization - to make a difference. No one in the community does what we do."

Nichols became an officer in 1989. He has been chief for 3 1/2 years.

However, the last call is near. Adjusting to life outside the department will be difficult, Nichols said.

"The hardest part is yet to come," he said. "It's been such a huge part of life for 23 years. There's a huge hole to fill."

He plans to fill it by concentrating more time and energy on his business interests and finding a new community service outlet, he said.

One of his proudest achievements is that not a single firefighter has perished in the line of duty, Nichols said.

"Everybody was able to go home," he said. "We've never had a fatality.

"Our goal is always everybody goes home after the call. Knock on wood, that's always been the case."

The chief said he is looking for one last hurrah before calling it a career.

"I'm hoping we'll have another exciting structure fire to respond to," Nichols said. "That may be bad to say, but firefighters like to respond to emergencies. That's what we train for. That's why we're here."

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