Passing the Torch: Meet our new Fire and Emergency Services Chief Marc Rathwell

Fighting fires and saving lives isn’t anything new to Marc Rathwell. No longer the Deputy Chief of Fire and Emergency Services, Rathwell has risen to the rank of Chief, upon the retirement of former Fire Chief Richard Hildebrand.

With his jovial disposition and teamwork focus, Rathwell is already well-known to many as he has served locally for the past quarter century. His role has evolved over the years. Rathwell began his career in May 1996 as a Paramedic/Firefighter. He became the Medical Training Officer in 2010, then served as a Lieutenant in 2014 and advanced to Captain in 2016.  Rathwell became Deputy Chief in November 2018 and was promoted to his latest role this past June.

“I’m extremely honoured to represent our community,” says Rathwell, while noting he has big shoes to fill after retiring Chief Hildebrand. “He’s a tough act to follow. So, I hope I can do him proud and just as importantly do the community proud and the rest of the guys. We’ve got a great team, at the executive level as well as on the floor. It’s going to be a lot of work for me and I’m up for the challenge and really excited about it.”

Marc Rathwell is the 12th Fire Chief to take the reins since 1901. A full-time fire department was established in Lethbridge in 1909, following a volunteer fire brigade that began in 1886. Back then, emergency medical care was provided by available doctors and nurses and the Galt Hospital ambulance. The Lethbridge Fire Department took over operation of the ambulance in 1912, and this year, Lethbridge Fire and Emergency Services celebrates its 107th year as an integrated fire and paramedic service. It is the oldest dual-role service in North America. Today, first responders are cross-trained to be both firefighters and EMS providers to provide the most efficient service possible.

Rathwell believes there are “extreme benefits” to our community to have trained personnel on fire apparatus and EMS apparatus. “When that first (fire) truck rolls up, they can support a person or community just like an ambulance. We can't transport them, but we can provide that level of service that you would get off an ambulance. Very few places can boast that, and we have staff here that are exceptional. But to be able to do that, they wear two hats, and they're really, really good at what they do.”

The biggest challenge going forward, Rathwell says, will be to maintain existing services and continue to give the community the best service possible, as well as looking for ways to make it even stronger and more efficient. Working within the budget and making sure all operations groups are on the same page while navigating changes requires precision.

“People think fire and EMS services don't change a lot. But there's an incredible amount of complexity and challenges when it comes to changes within groups like this. And it happens frequently,” he says. “To keep everyone on the same page, and operations, is a large job and requires a lot of people. We work very hard to do that here and I think we've been very successful.”

One of the key changes is the development of a mental health program, championed by former chief Hildebrand. The nature of the occupation can take its toll, so it’s vitally important to ensure the first responders who serve the community can find the help they need. Whether they may be cutting people out of vehicles, putting out a fire, or attending to someone who is injured, first responders are aware it’s the worst day of many people’s lives. And while stoically doing their duty, they are also trying to process everything themselves, on a daily basis. This is why the team now has access to psychologists on contract and a peer-supported critical incident stress management group. “Mental health is just as important as their physical health. And we want to support them at all levels with that,” says Rathwell.

As Deputy Chief, Rathwell already got a taste of what it would be like to lead the department. He’s worked closely with former Chief Hildebrand for more than two decades, as well as various stakeholders and community organizations involved with making our community safer for everyone. As he is Chief, Rathwell also assumes the role of Director of Emergency Management. It’s a broader role to consider the impact of an incident on the greater community and act accordingly. Communication between many of the city’s organizations and services is essential.

With an ongoing drug crisis in the community, as many other communities are experiencing, Rathwell acknowledges there are no easy answers. But he’s confident in taking the helm and he looks forward to continuing “to adapt and expand to meet the needs of our growing community.”

Former Chief Richard Hildebrand assures that it will be a seamless transition. Although Rathwell’s first day as Chief was in June, Hildebrand stayed on as an advisor until mid-August. “We have a fantastic foundation here and a great team. The department is very well positioned to move forward into the future,” says Hildebrand. “I have worked with Marc for more than two decades and I know he is fantastic at maintaining and developing relationships, and this is really a key skill a chief has to bring to the table. I am confident he can get the job done.”

A New Chapter

Retired Chief of Fire and Emergency Services Richard Hildebrand reminisces on 34 years of service

After serving the Lethbridge community for over three decades, it’s easy to see why retired Fire and EMS Chief Richard Hildebrand gets sentimental. “A lot of your identity is wrapped up in this uniform,” he says.

Hildebrand announced his retirement earlier this year after four years at the helm of Lethbridge Fire and EMS Services. But his career began with the City of Lethbridge in 1985 as one of the first two paramedic/firefighters hired. Hildebrand says he knew early on that he wanted to be a paramedic, taking his first level of Emergency Medical Technician training while he was still in high school. Upon graduation Hildebrand enrolled in the paramedic program and “found that it truly was my passion,” he says.

In 2000, he served as a Fire Prevention Officer, advancing to the Deputy Chief in 2002. All while working towards a science degree at the University of Lethbridge and a Master’s of Public Administration. “I’ve been lucky enough to sort of reinvent myself,” he says with a smile.

In 2009, he joined the City Manager’s office to work on a variety of corporate projects which included leading in the ongoing relationship and contract discussions with the Alberta Health Services ambulance contract and the dispatch integration. These projects supported the retention of Lethbridge’s integrated service delivery model.  “It was a really interesting experience and gave me, I think, a completely different perspective on administration,” he says. “And, it really helped for me to develop different relationships and understanding the different processes that that kind of bind the broader City of Lethbridge together.”

In 2015, Hildebrand was offered the position of Chief. “And I immediately knew that it was the position I wanted most,” he says. “There was no doubt. There was no hesitancy to move back to the department. I had missed my uniform here and sense of belonging to this team.”

Hildebrand speaks highly of the entire department and credits their commitment and adaptability with raising the bar for others to follow. “It's where so many departments want to get to, and we're here and leading the way, I think, often sought out as models to replicate,” he says.

Over the years, Hildebrand has seen his share of changes in the department. And there have been many interesting moments and memories created along the way. “First responders… I think we develop a memory or sort of a filing cabinet of some events that you want to try and forget. But they're filed back there somewhere, and you want to try and manage that drawer. But certainly, there are some events that stick out,” he says.

One particular moment really stands out. Hildebrand considers himself fortunate to have helped bring a few babies into the world. There was one very early in his career, in the mid-80s. “I was the first person to see this little tiny baby. The Mom delivered at home,” he says. “And about 15 or 20 years later, I had a tap on the shoulder when I was in the mall. And there was this lady. I didn’t recognize her immediately.” It turns out it was the woman that he helped deliver her son. “But beside her was this six-foot-something young man. So, being able to kind of close the loop like that was very, very special. That was certainly one of those moments that will always stick with me for sure.”

Hildebrand’s final day with the City was August 13. He looks forward to moving to an acreage in the Crowsnest Pass and spending more time with his wife Dee and their two daughters. “In some ways it’s a new beginning,” he says.

“I’ve had an amazing career with the City of Lethbridge. I’ve had some great experiences and had the opportunity to work with amazing people all while serving the community I love. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”
Retired Fire Chief Richard Hildebrand and new Fire Chief Marc Rathwell.jpg
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