Leading under pressure

July 23, 2014

When the water rose around Calgary, Bruce Burrell flowed with it.

As chief of the Calgary Fire Department and director of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency, he oversaw a well-orchestrated emergency response program during the 2013 Calgary floods that he credits to the preparation and skill of his team and the ability to adapt to a fast-changing reality. A graduate of Royal Roads University’s MBA program, Burrell's role in the response has earned him a 2014 Alumni Leadership Award.

“I grew up in an environment where no obstacle was too big to overcome; you just found a different way to do it,” Burrell says. “You have to have a clear vision of what the end state is and you have to be able to articulate that. Then you have to remove the barriers to people doing their jobs and get out of their way. You have to trust them.”

On June 20, 2013, the first orders for Calgary were issued, leading to the eventual evacuation of 75,000 people and eventually a state of emergency declared in 27 communities.

“It was an incredibly difficult situation, one beyond the scope of anything our city had dealt with before,” says Naheed Nenshi, mayor of Calgary. “Chief Burrell and his team handled these emerging events like true professionals. He knew what had to be done, and he did it.”

When the waters started to recede, there were new problems for a city with displaced residents eager to assess the damage. Burrell recalls the day he showed up at McMahon Stadium expecting to see 600 volunteers. More than 4,000 people greeted him and he quickly realized the process set in place to register and assign volunteers wouldn’t work. “We threw out the book on volunteer management. We didn’t register any of them and just took them to where they needed to be to help,” he says. The end result? More people were able to help and residents didn’t lose faith in the city’s leadership.

“We are so process laden in government that when we are in an emergency, people have a problem letting go of that process,” he says. In a crisis, however, the right decision can be the one that positively impacts the lives of people, rather than explicitly follows procedure.

“You have to get people to stop thinking like bureaucrats and get them to start thinking like leaders in the community.”

That’s easier to do in an emergency situation, but it should be encouraged consistently in the workplace as well, he says. “Your responsibility is to make sure people are as successful as you can help them be. Let them do 90 per cent of the work and get 100 per cent of the credit.”

With more than two decades’ experience in emergency management, Burrell rose through the ranks from firefighter to lieutenant, operational captain and finally manager of safety for Halifax Fire and Emergency. He moved to Calgary in 2005 and graduated with his MBA in 2012. It was the programs focus on adult learning and change management that caught his interest.

Burrell retired from Calgary Fire Department in July and is moving back to Nova Scotia where his career began. It’s an appropriate bookend to his various positions as he will be applying his experience and energy to his own consultancy focused on change leadership.

His goal is simple: “In all honesty I want to really help others.”