Wayne Law alumnus serves as fire chief and Miller Canfield senior counsel
When Stephen Ott was a law student at Wayne State University Law School, a large fire broke out in a warehouse near campus.
“Smoke from the fire drifted toward our apartment, and you could hear the sirens of the arriving apparatus,” said Ott, a senior counsel with Miller Canfield. “I took a break from studying and joined a crowd that had assembled to watch the Detroit Fire Department work. I found it fascinating.”
Shortly after graduating from Wayne Law in 1979, he read that the Detroit Fire Department was reactivating its auxiliary force. He signed up and reported for training.
“It was just a couple of hours on a weeknight for several weeks, and they taught us the basics of establishing a water supply and operating hoses from exterior positions,” Ott said. “Eventually, we were issued some old gear and told that we could report to an officer at the scene of a multiple alarm fire, and assist as allowed. So three or four times a year, I would do that, and gained a great deal of experience in the process.”
Years later, Ott and his family moved to Northville, where he learned that the city’s Fire Department was a pay-per-call volunteer department. His new home was a few blocks from the fire station, and Ott ended up joining.
“In due course, I was sent to a nearby department to start my formal training,” he said.
Finding a balance between his busy Miller Canfield legal practice, for which he’s been honored by Best Lawyers in America and Michigan Super Lawyers, and his work as a firefighter has been a challenge at times, but he’s never looked back.
“As lawyers, we have some flexibility in our schedules,” Ott said. “That has certainly helped when trying to fit in the training and run response time for the Fire Department. Over the years, there have certainly been times, while in trial or during out-of-town trips, where my focus was more on legal work than on the work of the Fire Department.”
Ott, who earned his bachelor’s degree in political philosophy with high honors from the James Madison College at Michigan State University, assists clients in defending product-related litigation and regulatory matters, with an emphasis on the discovery and information-gathering aspects of the work.
In 2014, Northville city officials asked Ott, then a captain and training officer with the Fire Department, to serve as chief.
“Being the chief is a full-time job, and I was happy with the work I was doing at the firm,” he said. “But I realized I was entering the wind-down phase of my career as a lawyer, and that I had already begun the task of transitioning work and responsibilities to the younger partners in my group. At the same time, I was not ready to give up the practice of law altogether.”
He talked it over with his legal partners, clients, family, friends and city officials.
“We came up with a realistic plan that allowed me to transition from being a full-time lawyer and a part-time firefighter EMT to being full time with the Fire Department and part time with the firm,” said Ott, who became chief in the summer of 2014 of the Northville City Fire Department, which serves the 15,000 residents of the cities of Northville and Plymouth.
His legal knowledge is an asset in his role as chief.
“A lot of the training in the handling of hazardous materials involves a review of the laws related to reporting incidents, transportation, storage, etc.,” Ott said. “Having a legal background is helpful in understanding the regulatory scheme. A fire chief is primarily an administrator, and legal training comes in handy when dealing with all of the administrative issues that cross your desk. Whether it is dealing with employee disciplinary issues, writing a proposal for City Council about purchasing some new equipment, or reviewing the latest regulations from the state, the law degree is a big help.”
Ott also serves as a trustee for Health Emergency Medical Services Inc., the organization that oversees and coordinates the work of Western Wayne County Michigan’s EMS agencies and hospitals. He is active with his church, Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Paul, and with its diocese. And when he can find spare moments, he enjoys spending time with his family, travel, cooking and music.