Fire chief leaves legacy of improvements
Posted on 06/21/2021
These four helmets represent the many "hats" that Chief Ott has worn during his tenure.Chief Ott in uniform
In the seven years that Steve Ott has served as chief of the Northville City Fire Department, he brought the department up to speed with vehicles and equipment, boosted training, and used technology to improve runs and office procedures.

“A lot of people have stepped up” to achieve these upgrades to the department, he said. Under his steadfast leadership, on-call firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and lieutenants and captains have gone the extra mile to make sure the department stays top-notch and ready to serve the community.

After July 2, 2021, Ott will be retired from the department. Throughout his fire career, Ott practiced law at Miller Canfield. He was a full-time lawyer and later become a partner at the firm while “moonlighting” as an on-call firefighter. He became a part-time lawyer (of counsel) at the firm and resigned as partner when he became fire chief in 2014.

“The legal training helps when dealing with administrative issues, such as employee disciplinary issues, writing a proposal for city council, writing a grant for funding, and reviewing regulations from the state,” Ott said.

What drew him to the role of fire chief? “Two things: the opportunity to serve the community in times of need and the excitement that comes from responding to a call when something bad is happening and you’re in a position to help,” he said. He often goes out with the crew on calls, even when they come in at 2 a.m. He’s proud that the department has been able to limit the damage of many fires – keeping them contained and from spreading to other structures.

One memorable fire occurred about three years ago. As he tells it, “There was a large fire at the DTE substation in Plymouth. The old transformer failed and over 1,000 gallons of oil caught on fire. I was in downtown Detroit when the call came in. As I was driving there, I could see a column of smoke from miles away.”

This was one instance where a mutual aid team (NCFD along with fire departments from the townships of Plymouth and Northville) worked together to combat the fire. The hazmat team from Western Wayne County monitored the air quality. DTE crews had to cut the power so the fire could be extinguished. Although the transformers were destroyed, there was virtually no damage to the nearby Plymouth Cultural Center and the DTE building on site.

Prior to serving as chief, Ott was an on-call firefighter and emergency medical technician (EMT) for decades with the NCFD. He first joined the force in 1985 after moving to Northville with his wife, Mary Starring, and young son and daughter. One evening, while walking past the fire department, he saw the crew training with the bay doors open. He was intrigued and asked Fire Chief Jim Allen, who served in that role for 35 years, if he could hang out there.

“He (Allen) probably didn’t think that the guy who was a lawyer would take to it,” Ott said, but he allowed him to become an on-call firefighter.

Ott’s zeal for firefighting began at Michigan State University, where he watched the action at the fire station next to his dorm. While studying at Wayne State Law, he awakened one night to a massive warehouse fire down the street and watched in awe as firefighters battled the flames. Soon after, he saw an ad to become an auxiliary member of the Detroit Fire Department, applied and was accepted, with subsequent training and supervision.

In the early years of being an on-call firefighter for Northville, Ott and others proposed holding an EMT class in house, and Allen agreed. At that time, the department only put out fires, personnel didn’t supply any official medical assistance. Training took place all day, every Sunday for seven to eight months.

After the firefighters completed the EMT course, the question became how to make the best use of the new training. Ott and others in the department dug into the details to find out what to do next. They gathered information about how other fire departments handled medical calls. They analyzed the department’s response metrics to demonstrate what could be done, and calculated the additional cost in personnel and equipment. Those findings became the basis for a proposal that Ott wrote for Fire Department response on EMS calls, which was submitted to City Council in 1990. It was approved. Since then, EMS runs account for two-thirds of the fire department’s emergency calls.

Another historic aspect of the department came in Fall 2010. The city manager of Plymouth approached Northville City Manager Pat Sullivan about having the NCFD open a “station 2” in Plymouth. An agreement was signed by both cities in 2011. Ott served as a member of the transition team, and the agreement took effect Jan. 1, 2012 and runs through June 30, 2023.

“It’s a good thing for both communities,” Ott said. “It provides each community with additional resources that you couldn’t have with only one station.” Ladder trucks are around $1 million and the two cities purchased a demo ladder truck for about $800,000 in 2015.

The NCFD’s full capacity has a roster of four captains, four lieutenants and 60 paid on-call firefighters, with 30 each allocated to Station 1 (City of Northville) and Station 2 (City of Plymouth). Interviewing and hiring personnel is a big part of the job. On-call staff are a fluid set of personnel, with many moving on to full-time positions at larger fire departments and others moving out of the area. Ott’s legal expertise helps in recruitment and dealing with personnel issues.

The department has never been as well equipped as it is now. Ott said, “We’ve been able to stay up-to-date on equipment through a variety of means – equipment replacement funds, federal grants for the new rescue truck, and regional grants for new radios and hoses.” In addition, new AEDs were obtained through the Firehouse Subs Foundation. In 2019, NCFD obtained a new fire engine #1711, and recently took delivery of another new engine (#1721) for the Plymouth station.

Ott’s focus on training has boosted the professionalism of the department. Fire Department officers – lieutenants and captains – who serve as leaders and supervisors have taken State fire officer certification courses. The number of staff trained as fire instructors, inspectors, and EMS instructor coordinators has vastly increased. There’s now a documented, in-house probationary training program for onboarding staff, conducted under the supervision of a field training officer. The leadership team also encourages personnel to obtain advanced certifications in related fields.

When it comes to technology, the department has improved the process of collecting data from each run and keeping track of who has completed training courses by switching from paper forms to an electronic data base. This conversion, using Google docs, now makes it easier to see performance metrics and produce a variety of reports.

"Chief Ott has led so many initiatives that have advanced our Fire Department, medical response, the partnership with Plymouth, increased training and professionalism,” said City Manager Pat Sullivan. “He has so much to be proud of and it was a pleasure to work with him."

In retirement, Ott plans to travel nationally and abroad, and spend more time with his adult children, four grandchildren, and friends.