Interim Fort Frances Fire Chief brings wealth of experience to role

By Allan Bradbury
Staff Writer

Interim Fire Chief Dave Robertson has been in the fire service for nearly three decades. He started as a volunteer and became a career firefighter. He has worked in both the United States and Canada and in urban, rural, and wildland environments.

“I was a suit, working in and out of marketing firms and ad agencies around Canada,” Robertson said. “That eventually brought me to Vancouver. But I realized after a number of years of doing that, that it was not my thing. So I hung up my suit and I became a ski instructor just outside of Whistler.”

He settled in the small B.C. town of Lions Bay. The problem with being a ski instructor is there isn’t much to do for work in the summer. So Robertson found himself looking to occupy his time.

“When you’re 28 or 29 you don’t always know what you’re doing and you don’t quite realize there’s no snow in summer time,” Robertson said with a laugh. “So I started asking around town and eventually went to town hall and this very kind lady that was working there directed me to either the library that was looking for volunteers or the fire department that was looking for volunteers.”

Robertson wouldn’t find out until years later that the fire department wasn’t looking for volunteers at the time. If not for a mistake by the lady in town hall, perhaps he might have ended up a librarian instead.

“I found out years later that the fire department actually wasn’t looking for volunteers. I just showed up on the right night with the right training officer that was working and he took me under his wing,” Robertson said. “He’s still somebody that I’m in contact with. That was how I started my fire career.”

Robertson continued to develop as a firefighter when he met a lady from California and moved to Marin County, California, which is a vast area to the north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge.

“You can drive for a hard hour and you’re still in Marin County,” Robertson said. “I was there for a short bit and then I went to the Oakland area, the concrete jungle. Very high call volume, lots of gang stuff, lots of fires. But it was northern California, one day you could be working a warehouse fire, and the next day you’re being deployed to a wildland fire. Almost all of the urban fire departments there can deploy as a wildland crew. They’ll often even have a wildland rig.”

You may think you’ve had a taste of what wildland firefighting in California looks like through the TV series Fire Country, but, funny enough the show actually shoots in British Columbia and Robertson says, like many TV shows the reality is often far from how it’s portrayed on TV.

The job of a firefighter is not easy on the body and a spate of injuries put Robertson out of the game for a while. He severed a bicep tendon, and “shredded” his shoulder, he’s blown out a knee and had one of his thumbs reconstructed.

“I got pulled back into it initially as a training officer as a captain in Napa County Cal Fire and moved on up to chief of training and then a chief within that county,” Robertson said.

Robertson was in the process of moving back to Canada when the COVID-19 Pandemic hit in March 2020.

“I rolled out of California for a job running the Nova Scotia firefighter school in Halifax that week in March when everything started shutting down,” he said. “Thankfully I’m Canadian so that made it easy getting into Canada.”

Unfortunately the school in Nova Scotia was shut down during COVID and Robertson bounced around during the pandemic.

“I bounced around to a couple different fire academies, at one point I was going to open up my own which was crazy,” he said. “I don’t know if you can imagine what you would need to run a fire academy but it was way too much [money] for my liking.”

He spent some time working as a consultant in the first responder sector for a few tech companies and in the course of that consultant work he was also helping with training and other things.

“While I was doing all this private sector stuff… I got recruited to Lambton Shores, which is near Sarnia and London,” he said. “There were five stations and 125 personnel.”

After 18 months in Lambton Shores Robertson did some other consulting work before being recruited to come to Fort Frances where he is filling in for at least six months while chief Tyler Moffitt is on leave.

Since his arrival in Fort Frances Robertson says he’s felt welcome in town.

“Everybody, to a person, is super nice, super friendly…” he said. “The crew here is incredibly dedicated, a career crew of six and a volunteer crew of 20. It’s a small department, and this is a great example of it doesn’t matter if it’s six or 60 or 600, you’re gonna be hard pressed to find a more dedicated group of professionals than the six that are here. They’re all in on getting better, wanting to do better, wanting to train more, they want to make it the best department in Ontario.”

Robertson says a career in firefighting has been tough both on his body and mentally but he loves knowing that he’s protecting a community and its residents.

The Times interviewed Robertson during the Emergency Services/Community Safety day while the department had many of its rigs out on the Canadian Tire parking lot. Asked why he’s stayed in emergency services so long, Robertson pointed to children who were having a look inside the trailer we had used to get out of the wind.

“Because of that right there,” he said. “To see the wonder in kids’ eyes and to know that this is what I’m taking care of. Then by extension, I’m taking care of their mom or their grandmother… There’s also the ‘sexy’ part of firefighting. It can be academically challenging, it can definitely be emotionally challenging. It requires such a high level of mental and physical agility as well. We joke in the fire service ‘there’s no such thing as 9-1-2 it’s 9-1-1 and when we show up we have to find a way, no matter what it is, we have to find a way to remedy the situation, so I love that part of the challenge, but in the end I really, truly believe in my heart that the mission is to care for the citizens of the town that you have sworn to protect. I believe that in my heart and that drives a lot of my passion for sure.”