On to a new adventure: Grand Forks Fire Chief Peter O'Neill retires after more than four decades
Chief Peter O'Neill says he wished he had more high-minded reasons for joining the Grand Forks Fire Department, but the beginning of his career—set to end with his Friday retirement—was really about chasing adventure.
It was 1973, and his father, Cyril, was the city's mayor. One of his first days on the job was July 4, and he remembers children crowding him in his gear and rubber coat at a public event. He was proud to be a firefighter, and when his first call came, he piled onto an engine, seizing his chance to be a hero.
When his crew arrived, a tiny grass fire proved the job wouldn't always be as glamorous as he'd hoped.
"We put the dang thing out with brooms," he said.
O'Neill's career carried him through more than four decades, during which he rose through the ranks from "pipeman" to fire chief, wading through the floodwaters of 1997 and overseeing the department's expansion into a brand-new station in the south end. His retirement Jan. 5 comes just after his 2017 induction into the North Dakota Firefigher's Museum Hall of Fame and at a final salary of $133,786—and one month after his department received an elite national safety rating.
"He's a gentleman," former City Council President Hal Gershman said, praising not only the new firefighters training center O'Neill helped launch, but the new south-end station that opened in 2016. "You always felt he was telling you the truth. I always had a great relationship with him. He'll be missed."
O'Neill graduated from Grand Forks Central High School and briefly worked as a surveyor and construction inspector before joining the local fire department. He was the mayor's son, and, asked if it came with any fraternal ribbing, nodded and laughed. He joked that he wasn't allowed to work at headquarters, lest he tell his father all about it.
O'Neill's career has left him with a long list of stories. He recalls saving a cat from a burning building and handing it to a fire captain, who returned it to an owner and got all the credit—including free meals at a local restaurant for a year.
He also remembers the days of the 1997 flood, and chasing fires all around the city. Eventually, he said, city power had to be shut off to stave off the electrical shorts sparking blazes. It was a calculated decision with a high cost, leaving homeowners with sump pumps to watch their basements flood.
The firefighting game has changed over the years, O'Neill said. Not only has the city expanded, but lighter building materials that burn more quickly have become commonplace. Firefighters are more rigorously trained, and now regularly respond in medical emergencies. It's far from the department he joined.
City Administrator Todd Feland has said a new fire chief will be in place as soon as the beginning of April. O'Neill said that, whoever they are, he hopes they value the department's rank-and-file staff—people whom he credits, often self-deprecatingly, for its success.
O'Neill stood with a Herald photographer in mid-December outside the fire station near Washington Street and DeMers Avenue. He posed patiently in his full uniform, waiting as the camera shutter snapped, until firefighters began piling into the engine waiting behind him.
"Chief, we're going to run you over," said one of the firefighters, hauling gear and hopping inside.
After a moment's more shutter clicks, O'Neill stepped aside. The fire engine drove onto DeMers Avenue and turned left, sirens blaring away, off for the calls that will always keep coming.