On Monday, the city’s fire Chief, Jon deHooge, announced his retirement — he’d been on the job for five years. His retirement was planned before the launch of a new strategic plan coming in the new year. “I thought it best that a new fire chief build and take ownership of that,” deHooge told the Ottawa Citizen.
Five years ago, Ottawa Magazine‘s Ron Corbett took a look at the then new fire chief — including his qualifications and experience, which were largely ignored. Instead, the focus was on the chief’s lack of French language skills — something that, though he took lessons, he was, he admits, unable to become fluent in by the time he retired. But given his accomplishments, was all that controversy really merited?
These thoughts and others come to mind as we return to that moment, five years ago, just as deHooge was donning the all-important helmet.
This article originally appeared in April/May 2010 Ottawa Magazine print edition.
Ask any firefighter how their department stacks up against the other two branches of Ottawa’s emergency services — the cops and the paramedics — and you’ll immediately get an earful about firefighters being the poor cousin. You’ll hear how they went nearly five years without a contract, negotiating with a stingy city hall that didn’t seem to have any sense of urgency — and can you imagine such a thing ever happening to the cops? You’ll hear about shrinking revenue, old fire trucks, and the constant threat of station closures.
And who gets all the media coverage? Don’t even get the firefighter started! It seems you can’t pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio without hearing from Vern White, high-profile chief of the Ottawa Police Service, or getting an update from paramedic chief Anthony Di Monte on the effort to get more paramedics on the streets. In contrast, the former Ottawa fire chief — who held the job for nine years — was seen so rarely in public that his nickname was Bigfoot. Rick Larabie, who retired last May, rarely spoke to the media about anything other than smoke detectors.
I was thinking about all this the other day — cursing under my breath and thinking how appropriate — as I drove in circles trying to find Fire Station 1. Fire Station 1 also happens to be the headquarters of Ottawa Fire Services. But I couldn’t find it. Missed it once, with the address sitting right next to me on the passenger seat. Then missed the parking lot on the second go-round. Bigfoot, it seems, had designed a well-hidden lair. (Fire Station 1, for the record, is on Carling Avenue, butt joint to the Queensway, just past Kirkwood, on a tight curve where you take your life in your hands if you turn into the fire station or even take a second to notice it.)
I finally parked the car and walked up to the front entrance, only to discover that it was closed for renovations. A handwritten sign directed me around the corner. Fenced service depots are easier to get into than the headquarters of Ottawa Fire Services, it seems. As I turned to start walking, a car pulled into the parking lot — a candy-apple red Dodge Charger. Behind the wheel was a heavy-set man with short-clipped grey hair. He stepped out of the car and rose to an impressive height, then pushed back a pair of blue-framed eyeglasses. I remember thinking, Well, the new chief looks a little different.
Last December the City of Ottawa announced that, after a seven-month search, it had hired a new fire chief. The man getting the nod was John deHooge, the fire chief from Waterloo. DeHooge was 53, a career firefighter with 25 years of service at the Oakville fire department, where he rose to the rank of deputy chief, before joining the City of Waterloo in 2004. On paper, he’s perfect. He has a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Western Ontario and is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He has won many awards for his professional and charitable work, particularly with muscular dystrophy, the charity of choice for firefighters since the heyday of the Jerry Lewis Telethon. He beat 300 other applicants and was referred to glowingly as “the best candidate for the job” by Diane Deans, chair of the city’s community and protective services committee, when the city councillor introduced him at a press conference last year.
But, this being Ottawa, none of the news organizations led with any of this information. Instead, the coverage concentrated on deHooge’s lack of French skills. (CBC was perhaps the most direct with this information, headlining its online story Ottawa Hires Fire Chief Who Doesn’t Speak French.) The stories then quoted the chief, who said he planned to learn French. Councillor Georges Bédard weighed in, defending the choice but expressing concern about the policy that allowed such a hiring to take place, while Councillor Jacques Legendre said he found it difficult to accept the notion that the city could not find a qualified bilingual candidate in Canada.
Still, when the dust settled, deHooge was still the new fire chief and most of the media had missed the bigger story. After years of perceived neglect by the city — and with morale in the fire service running as low as a lure skipping along the bottom of a lake — is John deHooge the man to turn things around? “I think,” says Ottawa Professional Fire Fighters Association president Peter Kennedy dryly, “that those issues are a little more important than what the media has focused on so far.”
I stand in the parking lot, waiting for deHooge. I have seen his photo in the newspaper. You can’t mistake the man. Too big. The glasses too obvious. When he sits back down in his car to make a phone call, I move on and make my way to the makeshift entrance to the Ottawa Fire Service, which turns out to be a locked employee entrance. I have to knock on the door and wait for someone to let me in. I try to imagine the front door of the police station ever being locked.
When deHooge catches up to me, his cellphone is back in his pocket and he is carrying a stylish leather briefcase. He walks right up to me.
“Chief deHooge. Pleased to meet you.”
I inspect the man. He’s the poster child for the expression “barrel-chested.” Within his chest could be stored enough provisions for a two-week canoe trip. Yet he isn’t a hulking man. The face is still youthful, the eyes are bemused, and the glasses are a playful touch — one that keeps you guessing about him.
“We can go right to the office,” he says, and I follow him up the stairs.
“Excuse the mess. I don’t really know what is going on yet.” DeHooge has been on the job for less than two weeks, and when we enter the office, a secretary is waiting to show him the new printer on his desk. It’s about the size of a lunar capsule. You can see the chief’s disappointment.
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” says the secretary. “Rather large, isn’t it?” Then she looks around and says helpfully, “Maybe we can put it on the bookcase behind you.” Okay — or maybe we can give it its own parking spot.
“Well, we’ll work it out, I’m sure,” says deHooge as he removes his overcoat. Now he’s standing in front of me in his fire-chiefs’ whites. Like a naval officer on parade. Maybe the middle linebacker on the old navy football team.
I quickly survey the room. Like the offices of many successful men, it is bursting with memorabilia. There is a photo of the 1948 pumper that deHooge helped restore while in Oakville. A lot of money was needed for that project, and he helped raise every cent. In the photo, deHooge is standing proudly beside the machine. Here is a muscular dystrophy poster from the mid-1980s featuring an image of deHooge with a large, bushy moustache and wearing a wet firefighters’ slicker — so perfect, you could imagine that the poster designers had called central casting for a firefighter and deHooge showed up. There are citations and awards and medals for meritorious service. In a glass display case are scale-model fire trucks, a few looking old and perhaps expensive. The room is a shrine to firefighting (the personal photos — wife, two grown children — are kept near the desk), and it seems a shame to leave, but deHooge has booked a boardroom for us.
As we’re leaving, I notice a framed citation and photo in the corner of the office. There is an emblem in the frame, as well — silver wings with the words “Los Silverados” underneath. When I look more closely, I see deHooge sitting on a Harley-Davidson Road King motorcycle. “Oh, that,” says deHooge, already marching out the door and down the hallway. “I belong to a bike club.”
If Rick Larabie ever belonged to anything, it remains a mystery. Bike club, though, would not be your first guess.
“He likes his Harley-Davidson, that’s for sure,” says Mike Noonan, vice-president of the Waterloo Professional Fire Fighters Association. “It’s the firefighters’ edition of the bike. I don’t know if he’s told you that.” The fire service, adds Noonan, is very important to deHooge. “I would go so far as to call him a fire nerd.”
If people in the nation’s capital are wondering what sorts of changes will take place at the Ottawa Fire Service under a new chief, Noonan can provide some clues. He worked closely with deHooge on many charity events and says that in the five years deHooge was chief, he might have missed “two events, maximum.”
One of the most popular events the fire department ran was an idea deHooge brought with him from Oakville. Called the Civilian Academy, it allows average citizens to become firefighters for the day. Members of the public can operate the jaws of life, enter a burning building — even drive the fire truck. Noonan remembers debating the chief on this last point. “I was absolutely opposed to that idea,” he remembers. “I didn’t think it was a good idea, having people drive the truck without any training. But John believed that we needed to do it. And he was right. It’s the most popular part of the event.”
And if the new chief plans to be a more visible figure around Ottawa, no one would be happier than the head of the firefighters’ union. “You see [Ottawa police chief] Vern White in the newspaper every other day. He keeps the police service in the forefront of the community,” says Kennedy. “The fire service, though, is almost invisible and has been for years.”
The relationship between union and management could be another thing to change under deHooge. That relationship has been rancorous since amalgamation. Grievances are a regular part of the workday. In contrast, no grievances were filed against the fire department during deHooge’s entire tenure in Waterloo. DeHooge can’t take all the credit for that (people can’t actually remember the last time a grievance was filed in Waterloo), but his open-door, talk-to-me way of doing the job certainly kept the streak going.
“John was just a delight to work with,” says Brenda Halloran, mayor of Waterloo. “He was professional, courteous, has a great sense of humour. If you can’t get along with John, then you have a problem.”
Diane Deans says this reputation was one of the reasons the city hired the man. “He is very outgoing, very personable, and he has a track record of fostering good relationships in the community and in the workplace,” she comments. “We thought we needed to make a change in that area.”
The boardroom at the Ottawa Fire Service is a drab room with industrial-looking furniture, chalkboards on the walls, and what looks like an Electrohome TV-VCR combo sitting in a corner. The brightest thing in the room might be deHooge’s glasses.
For the next hour, we talk about his hopes and aspirations for the job. The Ottawa Fire Service has a five-year strategic plan that has yet to go before City Council. That’s his first job. “A lot of work to do there,” he says. After the strategic planning, he hopes “on a go-forward basis” to work on “engaging and collaborating” with members of the Ottawa Professional Fire Fighters Association. He wants to create an environment of “mutual trust and respect” between management and union. (He may be a firefighters’ firefighter, but deHooge often talks like the graduate of a public administration course, which he also is.) We talk briefly about his language skills. (“I will learn French. I have already asked some of my staff to start speaking to me in French.”)
We talk about his background. He was brought up in Toronto and was originally going to be a cop but changed his mind when a retiring police officer told him that if he had to do it all over again, he would become a firefighter. “A large part of a cop’s job is enforcement,” explains deHooge.
“A firefighter’s job, when you get right down to it, is to help people out of a jam. The old cop told me he would have enjoyed that more.” So he became a firefighter, joining the Oakville Fire Department shortly after high school. He was trained on the job. All his degrees and certificates also came while he was working. He is a “lifelong learner” and proud of the fact.
He has a grown son, who’s a firefighter in Mississauga, and a stepson attending Carleton University. His wife, Heather deHooge, fostered guide dogs for the blind and was excited to learn that the Canadian National Institute for the Blind has a kennel and training facility in Manotick.
As for the Harley, yes, it’s the firefighters’ edition. The company started making them in 2003, and deHooge bought one the same year. Have to be a firefighter to own one. No wannabes. “I love being on a bike,” he says. “I rode a lot when I was younger, and now I’m getting back into it. At 53.
That’s the prime of your life, right?” It doesn’t really seem like a question, so I just nod.
Phone around and ask about John deHooge — do it for a day or two — and you’ll walk away with the firm belief that there are about to be big-time changes at the Ottawa Fire Service.
The president of the union describes him as “a breath of fresh air” and then almost gushes about the man. Gushing is something Peter Kennedy has rarely been known to do.
The mayor of Waterloo still seems heartbroken to have lost him. (Mayor Halloran provides my favourite deHooge description. “He is a man of manly stature,” says Her Worship.)
Diane Deans almost gloats that she got him. “The best candidate for the job,” she says. Then she goes on quickly to say: “He’s a snappy dresser. He has some style. He really is an interesting man.” Deans also says the city is happy to have a more extroverted person in the fire chief job.
So how much of a profile will the new chief have in the community? He has some stiff competition, with Vern White and Anthony Di Monte already out there. Both men have become media favourites. And both have a running start on deHooge, who is still finding his way around the city. Still, those who know him have no doubt he will make his presence felt. And quickly.
“Have you seen his car?” Mike Noonan asks me near the end of our interview. “You’re talking about his motorcycle, but have you seen his car?”
“The red Dodge Charger, right?”
“That’s right. Everyone in Waterloo knew that car. You know why?”
“Because he kept red emergency lights in the back seat. He’d slap them on the roof anytime there was a fire call.”
“He’d show up at the fire in a Dodge Charger?”
“With lights a-flashin’‚” says Noonan.
Get ready, Ottawa.