Fire service is something that runs deep in Amber Butler’s blood.
Both sets of her grandfathers served as firefighters for many years, while her dad, Dan Woolley, was a volunteer firefighter and battalion chief for Keizer Fire District (KFD) for more than three decades. Butler has fond memories of playing hide-and-seek in the fire station and listening to family members swap stories of the role they played in saving someone’s life.
“I remember being a little kid and listening to my grandpa’s stories about helping people in their time of need. I knew from a very young age that being a firefighter was something I wanted to do,” Butler said.
After spending 25 years as a volunteer firefighter with Keizer Fire District, Butler officially retired last month. With two kids — Abigail (13) and Ethan (11) — and a job as a registered nurse at Salem Hospital, Butler felt that she needed to give up her time as a firefighter, even though the decision to retire was extremely difficult.
“It was a bittersweet thing to realize that something I have spent more than half my life doing will now be gone. It’s hard to swallow, but it’s necessary,” Butler said.
Along with her father, Butler has left quite the legacy over her quarter-century of service. She has been KFD Firefighter of the Year, Emergency Medical Technician of the Year and she was the past president of the Keizer Volunteer Firefighters Association. For more than a decade, Butler has also participated in the Firefighters Stair Climb in both Portland and Seattle, and has raised nearly $100,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma society.
“I am telling you that among all volunteers, Amber is special. She serves with skill, devotion, and a heartfelt passion for people,” said KFD Fire Chief Jeff Cowan. “Our community owes a huge debt of gratitude to Amber Butler with 25 years of service. She set the bar for others to follow.”
Butler began serving in the KFD explorer program as an 18-year old in 1994 then became an official volunteer the following year — Butler and her dad were the first father-daughter department team in district history.
Butler’s desire was to be a career paramedic and then go into the fire service as a full-time job. However, when she met her husband Brian — who started working at KFD in 1995 and is currently the division chief — a wrench was thrown into her plans.
“Brian came in and screwed up all of my plans,” joked Butler. “I really had to do a lot of soul searching because I loved the fire service, but I also loved (Brian). I knew that I wanted kids, and I knew it would be hard to make time for them if both parents were career firefighters, so I decided to instead become a registered nurse and then do volunteer work for the fire department.”
Butler dated Brian for four years and the two were married on Sept. 11, 1999 — two years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Butler says it’s difficult having an anniversary on such a dark day in American history, especially as a member of the fire service, but that she and her husband still find ways to still celebrate their 21 years of marriage.
“It was especially difficult the first couple years. It seemed like we were always attending memorial services during our anniversary. We will never forget and we will always remember where we were, but we still take the day to celebrate us. To be married to the love of my life for 21 years, that accomplishment seems miraculous now days,” Butler said.
As a volunteer, Butler would attend learning sessions every Monday night and serve a 12-hour shift with the district every sixth day — Butler also would work two 12-hour shifts at the hospital every week. When she started having kids, Butler cut back on her shifts at the station, but still wanted to make sure she was serving as much as she could.
At times, juggling her responsibilities as a wife, mother, nurse and firefighter was challenging, but she never wavered in her commitment as a volunteer. For Butler, being at the station and around her colleagues and serving her community was a priority.
“I want to be at the fire station. That’s my extended family. Those bonds are very significant,” Butler said.
Butler’s favorite part of being a KFD volunteer was serving in the multiple community outreach events KFD does every year, such as Candy Cane Day or the Mother’s Day Breakfast. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all those events in 2020, Butler was crushed.
“I love being a part of the community and doing things like waving to people in the parade, and seeing people in the breakfast line,” Butler said. “Unfortunately, COVID has changed the way we interact with the community. I was really sad that I didn’t go out like I wanted and it sucked not being able to do those things you love so much. But the cool thing about Keizer Fire District is that I can come back and do those community events, even though I will be retired.”
According to Butler, when she first joined the district in the ‘90s, the assumption was that women shouldn’t be in the fire service because it was too dangerous. But there were multiple people on the KFD staff that encouraged Butler and told her that she belonged. Now, Butler wants to do the same for the next generation.
“In 1994, it was rare to have a woman in the fire department. But there were people that encouraged me and empowered me when I joined the district, so I want to do the best I can to empower and set an example for girls that are interested in becoming a firefighter,” Butler said. “Seeing the looks on little girls’ faces when I get out a fire engine and showing girls that they could be a firefighter too has been incredibly memorable. Knowing that some girls look up to me is a priceless part of this job… I love that (KFD) has a diverse staff of both men and women.”
When reflecting on her 25 years with KFD, Butler had a hard time coming up with words to convey how grateful she is. One thing is for sure, however — she will be missed.
“I really don’t know how to sum up how meaningful the last 25 years have been. I just know that I am incredibly thankful,” Butler said.
Cowan added: “Amber is a rare individual whose selfless motivation and commitment to public service is motivated by her caring heart. Her heart and passion for kindness shines in all that she does be that of her family, her career, or her years of selfless community service. She deserves every accolade and comes by them by honestly earning them.”