‘Not everyone’s cup of tea’: Mississauga Fire Chief Deryn Rizzi’s unconventional climb up the ladder
As the head of Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services, with over two decades of accomplishments, Deryn Rizzi is a unique force in the world of public safety. Using her thirst for knowledge, she has advanced in a field dominated by men.
Leading a team of close to 800 fire service personnel in a city with a population of nearly 800,000, Chief Rizzi takes it in stride, attributing the service’s recent success to the collective efforts of the team around her.
Her resume is an unmatched recognition of her educational success, highlighted by numerous awards — in municipal leadership, employment negotiations, labour relations, public administration — two decades of experience in the field, post-secondary degrees and certifications, and her own teaching accomplishments.
She is a leader.
Rizzi has two undergraduate degrees from Queen’s University: one in geography, another in education. She has a master’s degree in disaster and emergency management from York University, where she is currently completing a Ph.D. exploring perceived barriers in workplace culture, labour relations, policies and power dynamics regarding women in non-traditional work, from entry into their profession through their entire career. She intends to wrap up her academic work for her doctorate this fall.
Her latest accolade is the Fire Chief of the Year Award, presented by the Ontario Municipal Fire Prevention Officers Association. It recognizes the significant contributions MFES has made to the prevention of fire, and public education around safety in the community. It is a testament to the rigorous work Rizzi is doing to improve the City’s fire service.
“I don't think anyone in the fire service does what they do for public acknowledgment. I think we do it because we believe in public service. We believe in public safety and that's the important thing to me,” Rizzi tells The Pointer.
“It's not about the fire chief. It's about our fire service. It's a phenomenal team,” she adds. “They inspire me every time I go to these big calls. Their skill sets are phenomenal. The media was highlighting Fire Chief of the Year, but none of this can happen without an incredible team around you.”
Mississauga firefighters participate in a training exercise earlier this month.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Shifting the focus away from her achievements, Rizzi says it’s all about the “unsung champions,” the dedicated fire personnel, from fire prevention inspectors/investigators and deputy chiefs to the firefighters, mechanics and administrative staff, among the many other countless professionals who form the backbone of MFES.
“My job is just to build the framework, the processes, and put all the pieces in place so that they can do their job efficiently, effectively, and just knock it out of the park every single day, and they do,” she says proudly. “There's obviously a sense of accomplishment when a firefighter goes home at the end of the day, and they know they have, in a positive way, changed the outcome for someone.”
Just over two decades ago, Rizzi was headed down a career path far from firefighting. A teacher at Meadowbrook Public School in Newmarket, she knew teaching was not the career for her. After leaving the education sector she began her journey in the fire service in 2001 as a rookie firefighter with Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service. She took an unconventional path to rise through the ranks from firefighter to acting captain, later training officer and then captain before being named deputy fire chief in 2013 and climbing to fire chief five years later in 2018.
“I was just very fortunate that I got a job. You look back and you think, ‘how did that happen?’ But when I entered the fire service my big goal was to be able to learn how to drive a fire truck. That's really as far as I could see down the road, in terms of accomplishments at that particular time for a career. It's amazing [when] you look back and see how far I've gotten. It's incredible.”
It was through her educational and volunteer opportunities that Rizzi gained the practical skills and knowledge to keep steadily advancing, even if that wasn’t her plan. Her drive to gain more education enabled her to stay current with the changing municipal and provincial landscapes. Her curiosity reflects the innovation, creativity and her consistent search for new and groundbreaking solutions to complex problems, to steer public safety into the future within a rapidly changing urban landscape.
She is no stranger to the intersection of technology and public life.
With a City continuing to grow skyward, Mississauga Fire needs to learn a host of new techniques and firefighting tactics to battle fires in a range of building sizes.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
A decade into her career as a firefighter, as a parent of two girls with her kids in school full time and a flexible work schedule, Rizzi enrolled in York University’s Master of Disaster and Emergency Management program which accepts 30 students annually. After just missing the cut, two weeks before the school year began she received a call that she had earned a late acceptance.
“There I was on campus, 36 years old… at the same time parents were moving their 17-year-old children into dorms, wondering to myself if I had made a big mistake,” she recalls. But it was her master’s that led her to a Ph.D., allowing her to further explore the gendered dynamic of firefighting, giving her an unconventional understanding of the role of fire chief, one that fit her own identity.
When the deputy fire chief position was posted, Rizzi approached her superior at the time, former Vaughan fire chief Larry Bentley, and expressed her interest in the position. After being told he was not sold on the idea, Rizzi responded with a shrug, “you don’t have to be.” But his faith in her, based on her work ethic and drive to keep learning, was clear.
In a career rich in tradition and hierarchy, with only three months in the role as captain, Rizzi leapfrogged over the platoon chief role, which was unheard of at the time. Traditionally, you would move up to district chief, platoon chief and then incident command before moving into a senior leadership position.
“I will always credit fire chief Bentley with the foresight to see my potential as a chief officer. I really owe everything to him, because it takes someone to believe in you. Clearly, he saw something in me in terms of potential and so I owe so much to him for opening that door and providing me that opportunity to really be able to shine, and so I work so hard for him.
“But then also, at least for a while until you establish yourself, you always just feel like you're constantly trying to prove you were meant to be in that position and you had value and you could benefit the department.”
Underinvestment in Mississauga’s fire department has led to a number of problems for the organization, which has struggled to meet national standards for response times in recent years.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Continuing her journey after moving up the ranks in Vaughan, Rizzi came onto Mississauga Fire at a particularly daunting time for the department. The city’s fire service struggled with financial neglect for years, as councils passed lean fire budgets while they focussed on other priorities. Firefighters did their best, but with only half the stations Mississauga required, they struggled to keep up with national response times, while many of the fire halls became outdated and decayed. Several need to be torn down and rebuilt as repairing them is simply not feasible. Between 2006 and October 2019, the service did not open a new station. Meanwhile, during that same period, the population grew by more than 100,000 residents.
Rizzi was thrown into the gauntlet, in a city whose population is projected to explode in the next two decades. How will they be kept safe, especially when the city grows higher and higher into the sky.
Despite the challenges of having to rethink strategy in a city growing more dense and vertical every day, creating challenges such as how to reach heart attack victims during a fire more than a dozen storeys above the ground when every second is a matter of life or death, Rizzi has fully embraced her decision to lead Mississauga’s fire department into a new era.
“Professionally, when you move, it takes time to understand processes and people and the landscape itself. But if you ask me, was it a good move? One hundred percent.”
After stepping into the role in January 2021, the city’s new fire chief did not hesitate, putting her name on a daring report to City Council that demanded the City invest $66 million over the next decade into critical infrastructure. The desperately needed money would fund refurbishments to bring 17 fire stations up to standard and pay for necessary repairs that had been shelved for years. To address the fire service’s poor response times, which sit well below established standards, the department has also finalized a plan to build six new fire stations across a 12-year horizon, work that should have begun more than a decade ago.
“My job is obviously to take a look at the current situation and determine where our gaps are or what needs to be addressed and really advocate for the fire department and advocate for firefighter safety, their PPE, all of those things,” Rizzi explains.
“But on the other hand, we also have to be very cognizant as fire service leaders that our taxpayers don't have bottomless pockets when it comes to tax, so it has to be a methodical and thought-out process that's not going to put too much pressure.”
She says while the department is working to play “catch up” it can not overburden the pockets of Mississauga’s residents at a time when so many are struggling with their own immediate costs. Prioritizing the investments Mississauga’s Fire Service needs most to keep residents safe is her goal.
She has put a timeline in place — the fire service plans to renovate an existing station every year and build a new one every two years — to reach achievable goals that responsible elected officials should support.
“Whenever you have a project, you need to divide it into tasks, and then figure out who's responsible for what and at what time of the year we're going to accomplish these things,” she says. “This is not something that I can do myself. There is so much work in that document but if everyone takes ownership, and we're all driving towards the same goal, there's no reason why we wouldn't get there.”
City council will need to balance financial pressures from Mississauga’s growth with the need to adequately invest in the necessary infrastructure to support its fire service.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Currently, the fire service is working with a consultant to develop a community risk assessment, as legislated by the provincial government in 2019, to guide the MFES in forming decisions about how it will provide fire and protection services to Mississauga’s residents. The assessment identifies risk levels throughout the city and lays out a guide to apply “risk reduction strategies” that will evaluate the probability or likelihood of an incident occurring and the consequences and impact to the community.
While public safety and providing an innovative service delivery remains a top priority for the Mississauga Fire Chief, creating a stronger voice for marginalized groups in the fire service, reducing negative stigma and evolving the fire service industry to meet changing community values are also top priorities.
Highlighting women who are increasingly pushing for employment in non-traditional work has become a central theme in her work. When Rizzi became deputy chief, with over 400 fire services across the province at the time and only three other women leading a fire department or holding a deputy chief role, she feared she and the man who had confidence in her would be under the microscope for the decision to make her the second-in-command.
“The day I was announced as the deputy fire chief in 2013, I had no social media presence. I knew if I didn’t get the information out there, it would be put out there for me, factual or not. From early on in my career I learned that managing a personal brand was critical to opportunities, successes, and the impact it could have on a career trajectory.”
As the province’s first permanent female fire chief of a major urban city, Rizzi is redefining the path for women in nontraditional leadership roles within a male-dominated landscape. Also a parent to two girls, the Mississauga Fire Chief feels an obligation to ensure the world they are growing up in is fair and equitable.
“Because of my position, I have the great opportunity of when you walk into a conference [and] all of a sudden it gives you that platform because people want to hear from you… and that was important just to ensure that there is a voice for the underrepresented groups. So not necessarily just women but [everyone] in the fire service.”
But she doesn’t let traditional classifications define her.
“I don't think about [being a female fire chief] when I think about myself. I'm a fire chief, period. I can't tell you if other people think that way, but I want to do the best that I can at my job. I hold people to high standards, but in turn, they can equally hold me to a high standard and demand the same level of performance.”
Chief Deryn Rizzi is Ontario’s first female fire chief in a major urban city.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Leading a fire service in a large city with such a rapidly urbanizing profile (as Mississauga shifts away from its original suburban built form) comes with several unique challenges, the Chief acknowledges.
As it grows in population, higher demand for fire and emergency services grows with it. Recognizing the importance of highlighting diverse community needs as the population’s demographics shift, Rizzi is working to ensure Mississauga’s fire department is culturally competent and capable of serving its diverse city effectively.
“I think all fire services are really focusing on ensuring that their fire service is reflective of the community that they serve. Obviously, all the same standards are in place, but it is important to have a diverse group serving the residents of Mississauga.”
“[MFES] understands we cannot function independently of the communities we serve. Achieving true public safety requires that our fire service personnel are responsive to the needs of our fellow citizens. This responsiveness requires a desire to be of service, cultural competency, a full understanding of underlying social issues, and the formation of meaningful and long-lasting partnerships.”
One of the more political challenges the Fire Chief identifies, are Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs).
MZOs, issued by the provincial government, bypass the typical local planning and decision-making process, limiting a city’s ability to shape its own development according to its unique needs and priorities. Since taking office in 2018, the PC government has used the tool, which is traditionally meant to be used for unusual circumstances like emergencies, to override municipal planning authority. This empowers developers to influence crucial land use policies across the province, instead of professional municipal planners who understand the need to work with fire departments when shaping communities.
A recent example of the problems that arise is the historic Ward 1 development of “Lakeview Village,” which will completely redefine the southeast corner of the city. Without any consideration for municipal planning, the PC government doubled its size from 8,000 to 16,000 units, increasing the projected population from approximately 20,000 residents to 40,000, with the developers now able to make substantially higher profits from the same footprint.
“You're trying to plan for growth in a city,” Rizzi says. “We're right now trying to build out a capital plan for the next 10 years, and deciding where fire stations are going to be and how we're going to prioritize those. Then if all of a sudden, a portion or parcel of the city grows double in size that we did not anticipate, it’s very hard to determine where we are going to build next. What's our priority?”
Without proper planning and foresight from those tasked with planning Mississauga’s future growth, its fire service will struggle to deliver adequate safety services.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
While the fire service can relocate crews when needed, if it does not have the infrastructure, that’s a major bottleneck, Rizzi explains. With the service working to achieve its goal of getting four firefighters on the scene of an emergency within four minutes, 75 percent of the time, fire stations need to be strategically located to achieve this objective. The Chief said rapid and unplanned development will likely have an impact on emergency service in the future if the fire service is unable to forecast the infrastructure and resource requirements to effectively service the increased population density, a challenge not unique to Mississauga.
She recognizes her unrelenting advocacy for public safety might not be appreciated by all municipal stakeholders, but she refuses to let that hold her back.
“I am passionate. I'm not everyone's cup of tea,” she says. “And I acknowledge that.”
Email: [email protected]
At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories relating to the pandemic and those of public interest to ensure every resident of Brampton and Mississauga has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you
Submit a correction about this story