Completing his 30th year in the fire service, new Algonquin Highlands fire chief, Michael French, said it was always a goal to return to his roots and lead a volunteer fire department.
“When this opportunity came up, my wife and I talked it over and never looked back,” he said in a recent interview.
French added that after serving 12 years as the fire chief of Rama Fire & Rescue Services, he knew in his heart that it was time for a change. He said the most rewarding part of his decision was the current deputy fire chief could take the reins without a hiccup.
French started as a volunteer firefighter in 1991 for the Bracebridge Volunteer Fire Department. The fire chief of the day, Peter Mitchell, gave him every opportunity to succeed as a firefighter and allowed him to take courses at the Ontario Fire College. That resulted in him becoming the only volunteer firefighter in Ontario to graduate from both the Advanced Fire Protection Technology and Advanced Fire Prevention Technology programs.
In 1996, he started as part-time instructor with the college, teaching new volunteer firefighters as they started serving their communities.
“My role as a part-time instructor led to the ultimate opportunity being hired as a first-class firefighter for the Chippewas of Rama First Nation in 2001,” he said.
Under the leadership of then fire chief, Mark Pankhurst, who served as a mentor and an inspiration to succeed, French graduated from the Ryerson University Administration and Governance program and in 2009 was given the opportunity to be the fire chief of the number one First Nation Fire Service in Canada.
He said throughout his career, “I have lived every firefighter’s dream.”
French said his early impressions of the Algonquin Highlands volunteer fire department is that it is very well established.
“I am so impressed to see the dedication of our volunteer firefighters and I really look forward to working with our team going forward.”
He’s not new to the Highlands, either.
“Joining the team at Algonquin Highlands does have a sentimental value as we have had a family cottage at Troutspawn Lake since 1967 and prior to becoming a fulltime firefighter, I had a refrigeration and air conditioning company and worked for many of the establishments in the Algonquin Highlands area,” he said. “The township is a very scenic area. I enjoy the travel throughout the area.”
As for the township itself, he added staff have been welcoming and it already feels like a family.
French said he comes from an emergency services family. His father served as a volunteer firefighter for more than 40 years. His daughter, Kaitlin, is a paramedic for the County of Haliburton and his son, Kyle, is a volunteer firefighter for the Township of Muskoka Lakes.
“My wife for over 30 years, Heather, is the rock of the family. After a very successful career as the owner of Heather’s Floral Designs, she has retired to help look after our two grandchildren, Lincoln and Laurel.”
When it comes to making his mark, French said, “I live by the statement ‘my role is to make the diamonds shine, not to outshine them’. Here in Algonquin Highlands there are a lot of diamonds.”