By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – As Green Bay Fire Chief David Litton looks toward retirement, capping a 41-year firefighting career, he reflected on his nine years at the helm of the Green Bay Metro Fire Department, calling it the best of his career.
“I tell people regularly it’s been the best nine years of my career, hands down,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed the people that work in this department.”
Litton said the sign of a good department is when the leader leaves, and nothing changes – it just keeps running.
“I know that we’re there,” he said. “I know I’ve got a great command staff here. The people that are in this department are highly-trained, highly-educated and experienced. It’s time to move out of the way and let somebody else take the reins and take it in whatever direction they feel is necessary.”
An unexpected path
Growing up in Illinois, Litton said he always thought he’d be a baseball player.
“That just wasn’t in the cards,” he said. “I was good, but not that good.”
When he graduated from high school, Litton enrolled at Purdue University for electrical engineering.
“I was five semesters done with that program,” he said.
But again, that wasn’t in the cards for Litton.
“My best friend John joined the local fire department and I thought, ‘Well heck, I’ll try it, too, why not?’” he said. “I fell in love with it immediately, partly because of the kind of team sport atmosphere of firefighting, which appealed to me because I had spent all my youth playing sports. The team atmosphere really drew me in.”
Litton said he immediately started working on his state certifications and went to EMT school.
“I started out in ’82,” he said. “And then by ’85, I was hired on full-time in University Park, Illinois, and the rest was history,” he said.
Litton worked for the University Park Fire Department for 26 years, moving up the ranks before moving to the Village of Bolingbrook Fire Department, just outside of Chicago.
“I left University Park as the fire chief and the village manager,” he said. “Then spent five-and-a-half years there as the fire chief in Bolingbrook.”
The move to Green Bay
After a nationwide search in 2013, Litton was selected as the chief for the City of Green Bay – an appointment he said he was humbled to be chosen for.
“When I saw the national ad, I was just wrapping up my career in Bolingbrook, and it just seemed like wow, that’d be fun,” he said. “It was kind of a long shot, in my estimation. I believe the city had 40 applicants for the job back then from all over the country, and I was just lucky enough to make it through the process and get hired.”
Litton said he knew the first week on the job, Green Bay Metro was a special department.
“I was listening to the radio traffic, and I would hear ambulances that were coming back from the hospitals and after they’d dropped their patient off and heading back to their station, and we’d have another call,” he said. “It wasn’t in their station district, but they were the closest ambulance. They would immediately come on the radio and say ‘We’re taking that call, we’re only a block away.’ I’ve seen other departments across this country where the ambulance driver would just ignore that and just keep on going. And that was not the case here. So I knew that we had a special situation here.”
Litton said he has spent his time in Green Bay “setting the guardrails and getting out of the way.”
“The (teams) just needed to be supported, and I really just needed to let them do their work,” he said. “They’re really great, professional, dedicated and smart people on the street, and I’ve been very blessed to be here.”
As chief, Litton is responsible for all the operations for the entire fire department and emergency management for the city.
“In a typical day, I set policy for the department, run the administration, manage our budget and interact with our elected officials on a regular basis,” he said. “I interact with our partners and fire chiefs around the area on a fairly regular basis. We work with Brown County Emergency Management and other local communities when we have incidents like the storms that just came through last month. So, we help to coordinate all those responses. My typical day could be just about anything. You have a set plan, but it typically gets interrupted almost every day, all day.”
Inspiring the next generation
Litton said his new recruit speech typically includes the same intro.
“I just tell them, that ‘look, you’re here as a servant,’” he said. “I tell them, ‘what you do both on and off duty is a reflection on our department. We expect your behavior to be of high character and not mess that up.’ I mean, that’s one of the first speeches I give them on the first day of the recruit academy.”
Litton said he tells recruits that being hired by Green Bay Metro is like winning the golden ticket.
“I call it the golden ticket,” he said. “If you go back to the Willy Wonka movie. It’s really a special place to be. We only hire the best of the best, and they want to be here.”
Litton said during his time as chief, the department has welcomed many firefighters from other departments.
“I can’t tell you how many people over the last nine years we’ve hired from other departments,” he said. “Probably at least 30 that have come here from other departments, and that’s probably a low number.”
The politics of an administration role
As fire chief, part of Litton’s role over the last nine years has included working with local leadership, including the mayor’s office and city council.
“Growing up and coming through the ranks of being in three different departments and having gone to the National Fire Academy and having lots of contacts through that program, you just learn what I call political savvy,” he said. “You learn when to push, when to wait and how to go about influencing our elected officials in a positive manner.”
What Litton said he has always focused on is being factual and always having data to back up anything that you’re going to say.
“I’ve always been very careful to make sure that anything that came out of my mouth was something that I could back up with facts and data,” he said.
Litton said he has also remained aware that the government has priorities all over the city.
“So knowing when to wait in line, I think is really important for the fire chief, for any department head here in the city,” he said. “Know when it’s your turn to push and know when it’s your turn to just wait it out.”
Litton said some of that work includes communicating that to the people that are working in your department, because everybody wants everything now.
“(It’s also) important understanding when the right time is, because when you get a ‘no’ from city officials, that typically means no forever,” he said. “So, I’m very, very, very careful not to push when it’s not the right time.”
One thing city council has come to expect from Litton each holiday season is his head-to-toe Christmas suit.
“I actually started wearing it at our Toys for Teens parade, so that’s kind of where it started,” he said. “And I thought, ‘well, why shouldn’t I just wear it to the city council, too, it’ll be fun.’ So, that’s what I did. It’s just something that I started doing because our business is so serious, and I love the holidays, so it was just to lighten the mood, and let everybody know that while I’ve got a serious position, I can also have fun.”
Looking toward retirement
Though Litton hasn’t decided on an exact day he will officially retire, the day will come before the end of the year.
“I’m kind of waiting to see how the hiring process goes, and we’ve got the Packers season coming up,” he said. “So, definitely by the end of the year, maybe as early as the end of October.”
As for what retirement looks like for this lifelong public servant, Litton said right now, all he knows for sure is it includes a move to Tennessee.
“People ask all the time, ‘When will you know that it’s time to go?’” he said. “I guess for me it was the fact that we had an opportunity to buy a retirement home down in Tennessee and that’s always been my plan. I’ve loved every moment in Green Bay, and if it were not for the winter weather, I would have stayed here the rest of my life. I’m just tired of winter.”
Beyond that, Litton said he isn’t 100% sure what he plans to do.
“I know that golfing, boating and motorcycling are all in my future,” he said. “As far as what I do intellectually, to keep myself from going crazy, I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet. I might do some instructing. I might write some articles. I might help the local volunteer fire department down there write some grants, because they have some equipment needs.”
Whatever he ends up doing, Litton said he knows it won’t be anything close to 40 hours a week, and at least the first few months will be filled with nothing but relaxation.
“For the first six months, I’m just going to decompress and kind of let the weight slide off my shoulders,” he said. “Because there’s a lot to worry about. I guess you have to understand that we have 216 employees here in the fire department. And you’re not just responsible for those employees. You are responsible for their spouses and their children and their brothers and sisters or aunts and uncles or mom and dad, and making sure that firefighter returns home safe. When you think about that in those terms, there’s a lot to be responsible for, and this is a very dangerous business. So, while I’ll always be concerned about them – they will not be my primary concern.”
When asked what he’d like the Greater Green Bay community to remember about him – after taking a moment to collect his emotions – Litton responded “that I cared about the city.”