Fire Chief Bill Van Helden marked his last day with the Cape Coral Fire Department on Tuesday, after serving the city for more than 16 years.
Hired as a division chief in July 1996, he climbed the ladder, becoming operations chief before eventually accepting the position of fire chief. Van Helden estimated that he has led the department for about 10 years.
Prior to serving the Cape, he was employed with Lee County EMS.
“It was an opportunity to get back into the fire service,” Van Helden said Tuesday of joining the Cape department almost two decades ago.
He has a combined service of 34 years in fire and EMS.
Intending to retire for the past nine months, Van Helden’s plans changed when an opportunity presented itself with the Charlotte County emergency management. Today, Van Helden starts a new job as a mitigation planner.
“I’m learning that right now,” he said of the Charlotte position.
Van Helden offered a simple answer for why he has retired as chief.
“It’s just time,” he said.
He and Becky, his wife of 23 years, do not expect to relocate.
“We’re still staying in North Fort Myers, where we’ve lived for 20 years,” Van Helden said.
On Tuesday, he shared a breakfast and final farewells with staffers.
“Just saying goodbye to some friends,” Van Helden said, adding that his wife, who was present for the breakfast, said it best when she got up to speak.
“She said, ‘It’s not the Cape Coral Fire Department for us. It’s the family of Cape Coral,'” he said.
Van Helden cited the camaraderie as one thing he will miss.
“Just working in the fire service,” he said. “The best thing is working with the people – that’s what I’ll remember most.”
The hurricanes, the larger fires that the department responded to and the extreme changes – from growth to downturn – will also stick with him.
“When I first came here, we had seven stations and now we have 10,” Van Helden said. “And the city has grown tremendously over the years, as well as the demand.”
He cited the economic downturn as one obstacle he faced as chief.
“And the financial constraints that kept us from doing what we wanted to do,” Van Helden said, pointing out the increase in calls for service.
Asked about his accomplishments, he listed the construction of more stations, changes to the Emergency Operations Center and implementation of the advanced life support program – putting paramedics on trucks.
“The greatest thing is to watch people grow on the job,” he said.
During his last weeks, Van Helden prepared for the next chief.
“Putting things together for whoever that new chief is,” he said. “Making sure that when another person comes, they have a smooth transition.”
Division Chief Jim Heikkila will serve as fire chief in the interim.
According to Connie Barron, spokeswoman for the city, the firm Colin Baenziger & Associates was contracted in December to do a search.
“We’ve hired a firm to conduct the search,” she said Tuesday.
The firm received about 86 applications, which are being reviewed.
“Their target is to narrow it down to six or eight finalists to present to the city manager,” Barron said, adding that the target date is by month’s end.
Van Helden expressed thanks to those he has worked with and for.
“I’m just thankful for the privilege of being able to serve both the city and my staff,” he said Tuesday.
Van Helden and his wife have four sons, ages 13 to 20.