Fire Chief Dave Pratt has been part of the Canadian Fire Service since 1998. He began his career in his thirties in the town of Acton Ontario, as a part-time firefighter before rising through the ranks to the position of Fire Chief in the town of Milton, Ontario. Currently Dave Pratt is a Fire Chief in Nunavut, a northern territory in Canada, and is using his years of experience to renovate the territory’s fire services.
What do you love most about the industry you are in?
I have always told anyone that asks about being a firefighter that it is the best job in the world. There is no job like it. In the fire service, you get challenged as an individual and you are continually learning as you are asked to perform various tasks. Growing up, I played on baseball and hockey teams throughout my childhood. In the service, you get to work as a team to come up with a solution to mitigate an emergency. I love that about my job.
I always tell people that when someone does not know what to do and they are having the worst day of their life, they phone the fire department. You are the one responsible to come in and make their worst day better. I think the fire service is constantly changing with new technologies and new ways to do business. It is constantly changing, and it challenges you both physically and mentally to try to come up with the best outcome for the people that you are serving.
What keeps you motivated?
I guess it has always been instilled in me to be the best at whatever I am doing: The best father, the best coach, the best fire chief, etc. I think in any position that I have had, whether public or private, I have always strived to do the best that I can. I think that constantly keeps me motivated to try to improve things and do a better job and ultimately to reach the top.
How do you motivate others?
In the fire service you typically do not have to motivate others. There are two kinds of people that get in the fire service: those that are content to have a career as a firefighter, and others that strive to take on more roles and responsibilities. That second type is typically already self-motivated. You might be able to help them in terms of suggesting things to try or share your experiences of things you have done in the past, but I think in the fire service most people are Type-A personalities. Most come in already motivated to do the job and to ascertain what their comfort level is in the service, or what rank they want to achieve.
Who has been a role model to you and why?
I have been blessed in my fire service career to have two fire chiefs that have been able to give me sound advice in terms of career choices, advancement courses or programs I might want to take, and to be mentors. They are people that I admire. I watch how they carry themselves and how they interact with other people. That has been an inspiring thing for me, and I try to emulate them- to achieve the same great things that I think they have completed.
How do you maintain a solid work life balance?
This is something that I struggled with for many, many years and it caused much pain and suffering. I worked for 20 years as a part-time firefighter, and at the same time as a chief officer, and I devoted much of my life to the service. I devoted a lot of time and energy into both of those jobs, and it unfortunately had a negative impact in many ways, but certainly on my family life. I always preached to my staff that if they ever came to me with a problem, like their child was sick or something happened at home, I always said, “Family first. You go deal with that and I’ll deal with the ancillary stuff at work.” I guess I obviously did not take my own advice. I think to be successful in a work/life balance, you must make time for both home and work but also for yourself. I think you must split your time and energy between those things.
Now I go so far as to track the time between all these things. I set a schedule and make a calendar on a weekly basis so I can visualize and prioritize the various things that I want to accomplish. I make sure that outside of work, I am involving myself in time with my wife and kids or with my friends. Before, I always put work first, with myself and my family coming after the fact. Now they are all on the same plane. I treat everything equally.
What traits do you possess that makes a successful leader?
My father was a teacher, and he instilled in me good communication skills, including the hardest thing, which is being a good listener. I learned early and often that sometimes it is better not to say anything but to just listen. He taught me to be very organized and that helped me become detail oriented. I feel if you are going to do something, you have got to do it right and to the best of your abilities. Through that I know I have gained confidence over the years and been consistent in my approach. I love math and am very analytical when it comes to problem solving and understanding the statistics that relate to this job. When I got into the fire service, there was a high priority on response times and knowing how long it takes you to get to the scene and how many staff you need to mitigate an incident, and I have always been able to lead on those factors. I am not perfect but 99.9% of the time I am able to stay incredibly positive and optimistic. I am a “glass half full” personality. I have the flexibility to listen and see how people see things from their eyes. Ultimately, people see me as trustworthy and honest, and they know they can tell me something in confidence and it is never going to be used against them. I am there for their best interests and would do nothing to take advantage of that.
What has been the hardest obstacle you’ve overcome?
Over my career, I have had to attend a lot of tragic events. As a chief officer, when your crew is out on a call and it maybe was not the nicest call, you always want to be there for them and talk about it when they get back. You can feel traumatized being on scene, but you can also get secondary indirect trauma from talking to the crews when they get back from the call. I always thought it was just part of the job and you try to be supportive of your crew. That is just what you do.
I think it was in it was in 2015, I had a horrific personal trauma involving a close friend of mine. He was a firefighter. It was a murder-suicide that not only affected me, but we were in a community and everybody kind of knew everybody. That trauma led me into a depression. I was trying to be there for everybody else, but I was not really helping myself. I did not really cope well but I finally got some help. I met a gentleman at a mental health and wellness conference, Reverend Clark, and I spoke with him at length. From that conversation I realized how sick I was, and I contacted WSIB, which is the Workplace Safety Insurance Board. I went through them and saw a psychologist who diagnosed me with PTSD, so I was able to get professional help through that. It was obviously a work-related injury, and I recognize the cumulative and critical stress and how it affects my body.
Through this reverend I learned of a three-tiered approach to dealing with the injury. I have a personal mentor who is a close friend of mine that speaks with me on a regular basis, and we talk about life and how we are doing. Sometimes it might be one person talking and the other one just listening, but it is a close friend that you can speak to where there is no judgment and you are not necessarily looking for insight or their opinion, you just need somebody to listen. The second mentor is a professional mentor. Similar to how you go to see your family doctor for an annual physical, I go to a psychologist on a regular basis to talk about my mental health and make sure I am continuing to practice the various things that he taught me to help me through my trauma. And, finally, the reverend is what I call a spiritual mentor. I do not necessarily look at him as a religious figure. I do not go around and preach about God and Jesus and all that, but I look up to him because there is a spiritual aspect of life and the afterlife. He is grounded in that and he can talk to me at a different level than a close friend could.
After receiving all the professional help, settling into a routine with those three mentoring approaches has helped me get through that situation. I used to tell people that I always felt my strongest attribute was my integrity. If I said I was going to do something, it was as good as done.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to others?
One of my past chiefs would always say that every day is interview day, and I think it is a fantastic piece of advice. That is advice that is applicable to you at your work or when you are out in your community or with family and friends. You are always being watched, and people are judging your character. Do not wait until there is a promotion at work to start trying to impress somebody. If there is a boy or girl that you like, you must remember that they are going to hear things about you from others based on your behavior. I think you need to be mindful of the way you carry yourself every day. You need to be proud of how you show yourself and your character. I have always told my kids that there are consequences to every decision. Some consequences can be good if you make a good decision, and some consequences can be bad. Just keep that in the back of your mind.
Explain the proudest day of your professional life.
As fire chief, the one thing I truly believe is that you should know more than anybody else about everything that goes on in your department. One of the things that I never got myself involved in as a deputy or a fire chief was recruitment of part-time staff, so I made it a point sometime around 2017 that I wanted to be part of the recruitment process. Everybody told me I did not have time for that. I said I would make time, because this is something I have never done, and I wanted to be part of it. I reviewed the resumes, I did the interviews, then we picked the class of around 20 staff. Although I did not attend all their training, I attended when I could, and I attended various public events that the fire department was part of where typically all the recruits show up to put out a good reflection of their service.
We had what is called a recruit graduation, so that night we brought all the recruits and their families to an auditorium and anybody in the fire department that wanted to attend. There was a ceremony with the mayor and other dignitaries. They were all sitting down in the front row and we called them up one by one and I was able to give them what we call a dress cap. That was kind of a signature for them that they have passed the recruitment and now they were no longer recruits. Now they were part-time firefighters. To be able to shake all their hands and to give them their dress cap and to see them go back with their families and children- it was a very proud moment for me. I got to watch this group of young men and women over the previous year come from nowhere, and now they were part of the team and they were part-time firefighters.