Red, White & Blue Chief Jim Keating announces retirement after 46 years in fire service

The retiring fire chief served for two decades as fire chief in Kansas before moving to Colorado, where he has served for more than 10 years as chief of Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District

Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District Chief Jim Keating, pictured here at his desk in Breckenridge, has announced he will retire effective June 2, 2023.
Ryan Spencer/Summit Daily News

After 46 years in the fire service and more than a decade in Summit County, longtime Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District Chief Jim Keating has announced he will be retiring effective June 2.

Hailing from Kansas, Keating began his fire service career in the U.S. Navy Reserve and briefly considered a career change before becoming involved with a volunteer department in his home state. He remained with that department for decades, working his way up the ranks to chief before moving to Colorado, where he became chief of Red, White & Blue in 2012.

“Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have been involved in progressive endeavors and cutting-edge programs that have moved the fire service forward,” Keating said, noting he will remain in a consulting role as needed at Red, White & Blue through the end of the year.

In Summit County, Keating helped the Red, White & Blue become one of just nine fire departments worldwide to achieve dual accreditation with the Center for Public Safety Excellence and the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services.

Under his leadership, the district opened Station 5 based out of Grand Lodge on Peak 7, established a wildland division and assumed responsibility for EMS services, originally run by the county government.

Over his years at the fire district, Keating has responded to the collapse of a conference center in Breckenridge, the Peak 2 fire, the occasional structure fire and many other medical and fire-related emergencies.

“Fire Chief Jim Keating has provided strong and experienced leadership for our organization through a period of significant growth and achievement during the past decade,” Red, White & Blue board president Jim Brook said in a statement. “Our Board of Directors is grateful for his service, and we wish him well in his retirement.”

With Keating’s retirement, the Red, White & Blue board of directors will select an outside agency to assist in the process of hiring a new chief, according to a news release from the fire district. A representative group of the fire district’s staff will be involved in the evaluation process, the release states.

Keating began his service with Red, White & Blue in 2010 as a board member, transitioning to fire chief in October 2012. He said the previous chief knew of his considerable experience in Kansas, including the 23 years he served as fire chief at Pottawattamie County Fire District No. 1.

Even with a little over just two years experience on the Red, White & Blue board of directors, Keating drew praises upon being named chief.

“No way could we have attracted someone of his caliber with such incredible experience and strong resume,” Arch Gothard, the board president when Keating was hired as chief, said at the time. “I believe that Chief Keating has done a tremendous job propelling the department forward both in its operation and administration.”

While serving as chief at the Pottawattamie County Fire District, Keating said he became involved with the Kansas State Fire Chiefs Association as well as the Kansas State Firefighters Association, at points serving as president of both organizations.

“With that, then I had the opportunity to do a lot of work to improve many areas of the fire service in Kansas,” Keating said.

At the time, there was a push for all Kansas firefighters — about 80% of which were volunteers — to be certified through a training and testing process, Keating said, noting he worked with a lobbyist and all the fire associations in the state for two years on the issue.

Eventually, the legislature approved $2 million in annual funding for firefighter training at the University of Kansas, providing free training to every volunteer fire department in the state that wanted it, he said.

Working as a legislative liaison for the Kansas State Fire Marshal’s Office, Keating also pushed for legislation that extended the statute of limitations for acts of arson from one to three years, laws that made it a felony to poison an arson dog and several other matters of state politics.

“I was involved in eight or 10 pretty significant legislative actions,” he said.

Keating also served in regional and international roles, including as a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and as president of the Missouri Valley Division of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, which represents chiefs from eight states.

While Keating began his firefighting career around 1970 with 3.5 years of active duty service stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with the U.S. Navy Reserve, he said he briefly considered a career in law enforcement upon returning to Kansas.

“It was pretty quick for me to understand that law enforcement was not the career path that I wanted,” Keating said. “A lot of interesting things happened along that road. But, you know, I became aware that was not where I wanted to go.”

Over his many decades, Keating said he has seen the fire service — as well as Summit County — transform. When he first moved to Breckenridge, Colorado Highway 9 was a two-lane road without roundabouts and only one traffic light, Keating said.

“Now at times with four lanes on Highway 9, it’s crowded, bumper to bumper,” he said.

When Keating first became involved with firefighting in the 1970s, there was still an attitude of “Well, I’m tough. I’m a firefighter. I can go into a burning building without anything,” he said, but as the impacts of smoke inhalation became clearer over the years, protective gear became more prevalent.

Meanwhile, fire prevention regulations, including widespread use of fire alarms and sprinklers, has led to fewer structure fires, Keating said, but modern building materials that contain more chemicals than in years past, mean that the fires that do burn present a greater danger to firefighters.

Technology, though, has been the biggest change, Keating said. Nowadays, drones can survey an area in minutes that back in his early years could have only been assessed by looking at the smoke from a distance and hiking in. Today, he said, everything in the firefighting service is data based and firefighters are expected to be more educated than in the past.

Keating said whoever assumes the role of chief should be prepared to embrace continued change, just as he has throughout his career.

“Be ready for constant change,” Keating said.

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