As he looks back on 15 years as chief of the Idaho National Laboratory Fire Department, Eric Gosswiller can point to plenty of accomplishments, but it’s the people who stand out the most. “I’ve never worked with a group more committed to each other,” said Gosswiller, who started at INL in 1992 as a fire protection engineer and retired at the end of January.
You could say firefighting is in Gosswiller’s blood. He was 5 in 1971 when his father, Don Gosswiller, took a job with the Idaho Falls Fire Department and brought the family west from Illinois.
“Even from an early age, I could tell he had a lot of pride in what he was doing,” he said. “But my parents strongly believed their kids should have a college education.” Gosswiller attended University of Idaho, where he majored in mechanical engineering.
Like many graduates, he was unsure what he wanted to pursue for a career. It was his dad who suggested fire protection engineering and introduced him to people in the industry. The job involves designing fire protection systems, performing inspections and investigations, and commissioning new buildings.
After he was hired by Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (as it was known at the time), Gosswiller was involved with new construction and startups at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex. This was where much of the focus was in the ‘90s, on cleanup and environmental remediation.
New buildings were going up at RWMC, but the Cold War had ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and everyone knew employment at INEL would be declining from the peak level of 10,000 it had reached by 1992.
While in fire protection, he helped shape the fire marshal program, expanding his involvement to nearly all missions at INL. He became active across the national laboratory complex with fire protection engineers through the DOE Fire Safety Committee and Energy Facility Contractors Group’s fire protection group.
“I got to work with many great people and mentors,” he said. “My first 15 years were special but not as special as what was to come.”
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, left a mark on every firefighter in the United States, and Gosswiller said he’s no different. He was on his way to INL’s Central Facilities Area with a colleague that morning when the news started breaking. He watched the events of the day unfold on a TV at INL Fire Station 1.
“You could tell things would never be the same again,” he said. After becoming INL fire chief, Gosswiller formed professional bonds that led to friendships with members of the New York City Fire Department, and under his leadership, the INL Fire Department hosts an annual event at Fire Station 1 to honor those first responders who gave their lives on September 11. “It’s something almost sacred,” Gosswiller said. “It is one of my favorite traditions we have here.”
When he became fire chief in 2007, he had already begun helping with the development of a contemporary wildland fire management program. This became a major focus in his time as fire chief. In the aftermath of the Sheep fire in 2019, the largest fire on site, INL, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the state of Idaho and other partners developed a post-fire recovery plan to address the environmental impacts of fire suppression activities. Gosswiller regards the improved wildland fire protection program as one of his top accomplishments as chief.
“He pretty much built it from scratch,” said Jim Blair, Gosswiller’s longtime deputy fire chief, now hired to be Gosswiller’s replacement as INL Fire Chief. “He has really changed the landscape from where we were in the 1990s.”
Blair has known Gosswiller since the two were students at Skyline High School in Idaho Falls in the 1980s. Asked for a word to describe him, Blair offered, “driven.”
“When he’s made up his mind, he puts his head down and starts working toward what he thinks needs to be done,” he said.
Gosswiller is proud of his time at INL, and in the profession he chose to make his career. Being a firefighter is “likely the most rewarding profession you can be involved in,” he said. “Expect challenges you’ve never anticipated. It’s not about the money, it’s about the difference you make.”
In his farewell letter to the department, Gosswiller thanked the team for the privilege of being their chief.
“I’ve seen you deliver during some remarkably challenging events despite not having the opportunity to do it as often as others,” he said. “When things haven’t gone as well as we’d like, you’ve rolled up your sleeves and figured out how to get better. You’ve enhanced capabilities and the ability to deliver INL missions. … I will miss the relationships I’ve formed with you more than anything. I feel fortunate to have been connected to a team that it hurts to leave.”
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