Last in a two-part series
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CHURCH HILL — After leaving the Kennedy Space Center in 1974, Bill Killen’s fire service career continued with an airport authority, Venezuela and the Navy.
Killen worked as the fire chief of the Lake Burton Fire Control District from 1974 until December of 1977, when he was hired as an instructor at the University of Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute.
Killen was hired as the explosives safety specialist for the Naval Surface Warfare Center in White Oak, Maryland, in February 1979, but he remained on the university’s payroll until April.
After one year at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Killen made his next important career move.
In February 1980, he became the fire chief of the Metropolitan Washington Airports. This included Dulles International and Washington National, which was renamed after Ronald Reagan in 1998.
Killen was the first fire chief of the consolidated airports.
Less than six months into the job, Public Safety Director Bill Halligan told Killen that the Federal Aviation Administration was going to send him to Venezuela for two weeks to assist a civilian advisory group.
During his first week in Venezuela, Killen visited all five of the country’s major airports and evaluated their fire departments. During his second week, Killen held a class for 20 Venezuelan airport fire captains.
Killen was presented with a plaque and a medal from the Venezuelan government. According to a Venezuelan official, Killen was the first American to receive the award and only the 20th or 21st person ever to receive it.
“A couple of months later, an individual from Venezuela was up with several people, and they came by the airport to see me and see my boss,” Killen said. “The US FAA fella made the comment, and he told my bosses, ‘I don’t think Mr. Killen understands the significance [of that award].’ ”
Washington National had more than 15 million passengers a year. As fire chief, Killen was responsible for providing structural and aircraft firefighting. Dulles International was less busy and had a special parking lot for VIPs.
While at the airport, Killen implemented a program that allowed firefighters to train as EMTs and paramedics.
Billy Shelton, the retired fire chief at Fort Belvoir, met Killen while he worked for the airports.
Shelton said Killen was an “outstanding leader and an outgoing person” who has dedicated his life to public safety.
In March 1985, Killen had the opportunity to change jobs again while at a meeting of a federal fire service task group.
“The task group had a meeting at Fort Myer; Jim Manzil, who was the Navy fire marshal program administrator, was sitting at lunch with Bruce Park, head of Army fire protection, and myself,” Killen said. “He told Bruce that he was retiring, and Bruce just turned and looked at me and said, ‘That’d be a good job for you,’ and went right back on talking to Jim.”
Not long after he was hired as the Fire Marshal Program administrator, Killen’s job title changed to director of Navy Fire and Emergency Services.
He was responsible for overseeing firefighting for the entire Navy, including more than 120 fire departments in 38 states and 21 foreign countries. Killen was also responsible for oversight inspection at 13 Marine Corps bases.
“That was a very interesting, exciting job, [and I] had a lot of travel with it,” Killen said. “During that period of time, I traveled all over the United States and in the Pacific, [took] some trips to Iceland.”
While working for the Navy, Killen met the retired chief of the service’s Northeast Command, Harry Tagen. The two have worked together several times since their first meeting in 1985.
“He’s a few years older than me, and he keeps going and going,” Tagen said. “I tell him, ‘Man, you gotta slow down a bit.’ He just doesn’t slow down.”
Tagen said that he feels comfortable working with Killen.
“Then when I retired, I went to work with him as a contractor for the Navy, and just the guidance alone,” Tagen said. “I always felt very comfortable working with [Bill] doing things, knowing if I did something wrong, he would definitely correct it.”
Killen was also the Navy’s representative to the Department of Defense and helped develop the department’s fire protection policies.
During his time as the fire director for the Navy, Killen also worked with Camp David.
“What’s unique about Camp David [and] a lot of people don’t realize Camp David is a Navy installation,” Killen said. “My participation and work at Naval Support Facility Thurmont was part of my duties as the director of Navy Fire and Emergency Services and as the fire marshal administrator.”
During his time at the Navy, Killen interacted with many different naval stations that had presidential connections.
“There were a number of interesting naval installations that had direct connections to the White House, and that included Naval Air Station Point Magoo on the West Coast,” Killen said. “That was the base that President Reagan would fly to when he would go home to his ranch. We also spent a lot of time flying to a naval air station up in Maine for President George H.W. Bush.”
Killen has had the opportunity to meet several presidents throughout his career, including Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Gerald Ford.
“I met Nixon, Johnson, Vice President Agnew and Vice President Humphrey at the Kennedy Space Center,” Killen said. “I sat in a large Masonic lodge with Gerald Ford, and I met Ronald Reagan in Dulles Airport when he was campaigning.”
Killen left the Navy fire service in 2004 as the service prepared for another large change. If Killen had stayed, he would have had to change job roles.
“The Navy, like a lot of government agencies, is unique in that they’re constantly reinventing or trying to improve,” Killen said. “In 2004, they [decided] to create the commander of Navy installations and put the ownership of all shore installations under one command.”
Killen took advantage of a buyout program that paid him $25,000 to retire from the Navy.
Killen relocated to Tennessee to be the Holston Army Ammunition Plant fire chief, where he worked for 14 months.
From 2005 to 2006, Killen served as president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
Since his term as president of the IAFC, Killen has continued to be active in the fire service through his work with the Hawkins County volunteer fire departments and as a member of several fire service organizations.
He is currently the president of the Hawkins County Volunteer Fireman’s Association.
Killen has spent all of his adult life in the fire service. He said he continues to remain in the industry because he enjoys helping others when they are in need.
“I guess the thing that’s kept me involved in the fire service is that it’s an opportunity to help somebody else,” Killen said. “The worst day in somebody else’s life is when their home is on fire, or they’re in a situation where they’re trapped, and they need help. You have the opportunity to intervene and help save their property or save their life. So it’s a great deal of satisfaction to help somebody else.”
At the start of his career, Killen never imagined he would be where he is today.
“As a 16-year-old kid, when I began as a volunteer firefighter, I had no clue that I would ever have the opportunity to be engaged in such important things that I’ve been able to be involved with,” Killen said. “The system says that if you have 20 years at age 50, you can retire at half-pay. So when I first started a paid firefighter at 20 years old, I thought, ‘Man, can you imagine I work 20 years, I’ll be 40 years old, work 10 more years, and have a fantastic pension to retire at 50. My career took me in a number of different directions, and the first time I retired, I was 64. Although I don’t punch a clock, I’m still active in the fire service, which is my 67th year. I had no idea that I’d still be doing this at my age.”
Throughout his career, Killen had a lot of family support.
“During my service at the Kennedy Space Center, there were many times where I worked as many as seven consecutive 24-hour tours,” Killen said “On more than one occasion my wife drove 70 miles to bring me clean uniforms and food when I had to work consecutive shifts. I attribute my success during my fire service career to the support and encouragement of my family, especially my wife of 63 years.”
Despite all his accomplishments, Killen has never lost sight of what is truly important.
“The thing that means the most in my fire service career, that means more to me than anything else, are friends,” Killen said. “Either someone has called me needing help, or I knew someone that needed help, or I needed a favor, and I could call somebody. So I guess what means the most to me is the friends that I have made in the fire service. So I guess that means more to me than any award or significant contribution that may have made friends is important.”