At a Florida Fire Chiefs Association board meeting last month, Lakeland Fire Chief Douglas Riley asked if he could be the one to deliver the Fire Chief of the Year award to the next winner.
What he didn’t know at the time was that he would be the one selected as 2020 Florida Fire Chief of the Year.
“I’m sure they got a good laugh out of that,” Riley said.
Riley was presented the annual award at the Jan. 19 Lakeland City Commission meeting. It’s decided on qualities like leadership, innovation, and service to the public.
Riley graduated from Lakeland Senior High School in 1984, and at 19 years old, he joined the Lakeland fire academy with a friend.
“He and I weren’t really sure what we wanted to do,” he said, “and a couple of weeks in the fire academy, I realized I found my calling.”
In March 1987 he was hired at the Lakeland Fire Department as a firefighter and first responder. After going through EMT training, he was promoted to lieutenant, then battalion chief, followed by assistant chief of operations. In December 2017, he was promoted to fire chief.
Riley credits his parents for his work ethic, and the fact that he’s a “people person” for his success. To be a successful leader, he said, there has to be genuine care for people, which is how he has approached every job he’s had at the Fire Department.
During his tenure, Riley has seen emergency runs grow from about 1,500 calls a year to 26,000 in 2020.
“The men and women are busier than they’ve ever been,” he said. “We’ve come along way from being first-aid basic providers to having advanced life support, medical in every truck, and providing everything to a patient that Polk County ambulance provides (except transports).”
He also regards staff well-being as a priority. After witnessing some health issues with firefighters who were enduring PTSD and physical issues related to the work, he worked to prioritize health and safety. About eight years ago, he established a physical training program and a peer-support team.
“We attended a training class on suicide prevention and the effects of the job,” he said. “The old adage was 10-foot-tall and bulletproof and didn’t show emotion. But we’ve started a huge shift there.”
Riley’s passion to address the overall health and safety of LFD, placing firefighters as a top priority so they can “take care of you” is one of his hallmarks, said Assistant Chief Rick Hartzog.
Hartzog, who has been with the department for 30 years, formally submitted the nomination on behalf of Riley’s staff.
“To be nominated, let alone be selected, means that his organization thinks highly of him and has that much faith in him as a leader,” Hartzog said. “He’s the best of the best of the best in the state.”
And he’s got a knack for making people feel important. He is engaged and accessible, Hartzog said.
“No matter what, he’s a busy guy, but I never feel like he’s away,” Hartzog said. “He always makes time for me, but it’s the same with everybody else. It takes a special talent.”
Riley serves on the board for PACE Center for Girls. He is a graduate of Leadership Lakeland and a member of the Lakeland Rotary Club.
In the lengthy nomination, under the section titled “Integrity,” Hartzog wrote, “Because of my role at LFD I get to see more of what he is forced to deal with day in and day out on the job and although he is too humble to ever admit his good deeds, I get to see it for myself through his work … He gives generously to charity but tells no one.”
This is the third time a Lakeland fire chief has won the Fire Chief of the Year Award. The last time was in 1994.
Riley said it’s gratifying that what he brings to work every day is recognized and appreciated by the people he works with. He credits his staff, ultimately, and accepts the award “on their behalf.”
“I still get up excited to go to work,” Riley said. “It’s strange for me to come to work every day, doing something I love and get awarded for it.”