FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Bruce Burrell
February 11, 2014
Sometimes getting an interview is a long process …
If you met him on a street corner or at his favourite butcher shop, he’d seem like any other citizen who lives in a suburban condo project, his wife (his 2nd) is a real estate agent, his grown children are back in his home province of Nova Scotia. He doesn’t shop much but he’ll shop around for the best cut of meat. Otherwise he’d rather be home reading, playing scrabble or cooking up a feast. Or fielding emergency calls from one of his 1,400 employees.
When we started talking he said he is a “highly creative”’ guy – but as our discussion progressed it became clear that his shop – a quintessential militaristic organization, is one where a “highly creative process” is directed by a calm clear thinking leader. Before last June’s floods, most Calgarians were just like me – we had no clue who Bruce Burrell (pronounce bur-l) was, or what he did? If we did, we probably didn’t give it much thought.
And we wouldn’t know that he keeps a saw-horse-like shoe shine stand and supplies in the washroom next to his office. When not in uniform and spit-polished footwear, you would see him on the street as just another guy in a business suit. OK, he does have an aid to drive him when he needs to, flashing lights and a siren. And yes, he does get parking tickets!
During last June's flood, when we all turned on our TVs to watch the latest briefing Mayor Nenshi was out front, but there was another fellow close by who was clearly in charge. He spoke clearly, with authority and we all got a quick education about what happens when a disaster or major emergency hits Calgary. There is a plan and structure in place – whereby the Director of Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) , who is also the Fire Chief, takes charge of everything and everyone reports to him. That’s what happened last June. Fire-Chief Burrell appointed one of his deputies as acting-Chief and he took the helm based on a well rehearsed structure and organization of city services that was in place, just like it was in the 2005 flood, only 'more experienced' at it.
I was fascinated – not just by the cool, calm and professional demeanor he showed but by his sensible rationale as it was explained. Often we were hearing it from the Mayor, but it was clear from what we heard and read, that Bruce Burrell was in command of the situation and we were reassured by his confidence. And I wanted to meet him!
I suggested to organizers of last fall’s Calgary Real Estate Forum that we do a session on the flood and how the commercial real estate industry reacted – a debrief if you will. They agreed, gathered a stellar panel including Bruce Burrell. I moderated a panel discussion -11:25AM concurrent session. Bruce brought some compelling anecdotes and dramatic flood damage pictures. Sadly for other panelists, most questions from the floor were directed at the Chief. He impressed us all that day … and I followed up with an interview request. He’s a busy guy – so getting together took some time to orchestrate. We sat down in his Fire Headquarters office recently …
His story is one I would describe as zig-zag path followed by meteoric trajectory! Dad was an electrician in the Canadian Navy. Mom was a lab-tech, then stayed at home while kids were young and later worked in accounting.
Born and raised in Halifax, Bruce did high school and then took a Certificate in Business Administration from Community College in Halifax. He was living an average life, Human Relations guy with accounting ambitions working for Zellers while working on his RIA (now the CMA) designation in accounting. Living in small town – New Minas, Nova Scotia included serving on a volunteer fire department where he handled HR matters and fought fires. He loved it. When Zellers down-sized, Bruce was looking for a job when only two organizations in Halifax were hiring – the Police Department and the Fire Department. He chose fire – in the fall of 1984 and he’s been fighting fires of many kinds ever since.
After initial training as a firefighter he got into the administrative area – dispatch, HR, training and some joint projects with other fire-fighting organizations. He also developed very good fire-hall cooking skills. He kept his options open – which meant keeping up his skills, training and certifications. Promotions took him through Lieutenant, Captain and Deputy-Chief. Projects, safety, strategic initiatives and a regionalization of fire services accumulated as credentials on his resume.
Then a head-hunter called about a Fire Chief’s job in Calgary. A bigger better fire department. Success in 3 interviews, the blessing of city council and Bruce came west, came aboard as our Fire Chief and CEMA Director 9 years ago. Two years ago he completed an MBA with RoyalRoadsUniversity.
His comments on that: “We are the fastest growing city in North America. We have the lowest cost per capita of a major fire department (over 1 million population) in North America”, and, he adds: “we are institutionally accredited”.
All that sounds like he’s doing a pretty good job. All we had to do last summer was watch a few of his briefings to the media and it was clear he is a superb chief!
His future? He says, “not sure.”
Is Nova Scotia the tug, or change of career on his agenda?
He is coy. So maybe politics? Again, he dodged my question. All I could get out of him was, “we still own a house in Halifax, my children are mid-20’s and living there, I have aging parents there”.
He summed up his leadership style with this comment, “We are doing high risk work. I am situational – command and control when I need to be. I have a great team of by-the-numbers professionals. I have high expectations of everyone who works for me.”
I don’t know how long we’ll have Chief Burrell serving us in Calgary – but I think most Calgarians share my appreciation that we are in very steady hands indeed.
I asked Bruce how he sees fire-fighting business, and his department faring over the next 90 days?
… budget, budget, budget. Growth management is all about innovation. Finding efficiencies and maintaining readiness.
And where will your department be focused over the next 5 years?
…. number one issue for me is pushing the development industry on residential sprinkler systems. There has never been a fatality in Canada in sprinklered space. I see us becoming a more integrated public safety agency … we operate 38 programs for the city. I see new fire halls as community multi-purpose hubs – involving parks, police, fire, by-law enforcement and possibly other community uses.
What qualities distinguish your preferred suppliers?
… customer service, quality. I pay more for quality. I deliberately won’t do business with people who don’t give good service.
What distinguishes you that causes your employer to choose Bruce?
… I’m a straight shooter. I give the good news and the bad news at the same time. I live up to my commitments. I try to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… the challenge for our Fire Department to keep pace with Calgary’s growth. Loss of life of citizens and first responders. People who take batteries out of smoke detectors.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my maternal grandfather who taught me about leaving things better than we find them. He is a retired timber inspector. He got involved, as a volunteer, in restoring old graveyards in Nova Scotia. I got involved in helping him on just one of those 38 grave yards he has been involved in restoring.
What do you do for fun?
… we are scrabble fanatics. I think we have every kind of scrabble board and travel scrabble games ever made – including the original. I’m a single-malt Scotch hobbyist/collector. We have two mini-dogs – a poodle and a golden doodle. My wife and I are both avid cooks – so things get heated in the kitchen! We did a cruise that included Bon Appetit cooking classes. Travel – anywhere that has no work demands. Reading, voraciously. I golf occasionally.
Your best dish?
… a seafood pasta dish.
Work life balance?
… I’m a pretty private guy. I would say, if you have to talk about it, you don’t have it. I work 70-80 hours a week, usually attend an event or two. I am called out to most major incidents and get called on every 2nd alarm fire – so the phone rings often in the middle of the night.
What do you read?
… I read fast. Sci-fi, thrillers. Tom Clancy novels, John Grisham, Dan Brown, business journals. I’ve tried both a Kindle and an iPAD. I’ve gone back to books.
… a city standard issue Ford Explorer, and we have a VW EOS .. my wife’s car.
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