Former fire chief Nick Ruller may have left his position for one in a large urban setting, but he has not left the community he loves, and is hoping to have a meaningful role in its future.
Ruller and his wife Lida are raising their four children in town, and have decided this is his time to run for a seat on council, hoping to represent other young families and ensure their needs are considered in council decisions.
Ruller was raised in Homestead, in one of the first homes in the Virgil neighbourhood, went to Virgil Public School and then to Niagara District Secondary School. He remembers cycling around Virgil as a kid, riding his bike to the Memorial Park pool, and has great memories of growing up in town.
It was during his high school years that he became a volunteer firefighter, before heading off to higher education. He graduated from Ryerson (now Toronto Metropolitan) University with a degree in politics and public administration, and attended the University of Guelph for a Master of Arts in leadership.
He also holds a graduate certificate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in community preparedness and disaster management,
Ruller, 41, has been able to use his leadership skills during his career, not only as the chief of the town’s fire and emergency services, a title he earned in 2017, but also as the community emergency management coordinator. He helped lead the town through the toughest years of the pandemic as part of the emergency control group, tasked with making quick decisions in response to the unfolding needs of the community during the time it was in a declared state of emergency.
When Ruller left his job as fire chief in February, he had high praise from town leaders. Lord Mayor Betty Disero spoke to his ingenuity and strategic leadership, while CAO Marie Cluckie said he was responsible for vast improvements in fire services, developing a “terrific team” to help him.
Ruller himself is modest about his education and his accomplishments in town before leaving to take a job as platoon chief in an urban fire department.
He is focused on ensuring families and children are considered at the council table —not to the exclusion of other groups and other needs, he stresses, but that they are not overlooked in the decision-making process.
“I look at the situation we’re in, the challenges the municipality is facing that are growth-related, and the importance of striking a balance of the diverse needs of the community, with young families, tourism, agriculture, development, employment and housing. I look at my four kids, and at growing up here and the things I enjoyed as a kid, and how the town has evolved. I want to make sure, if the opportunity is there, that I can be an advocate of others in similar situations, and make sure we strike that balance.”
Ruller says his senior management role with the town has given him a good understanding of town staff and the demands they face, while also allowing him to build a relationship with council, with whom he worked on several projects to move the fire department forward. “I had to develop an understanding of municipal governance in order to be effective in my role,” he says, “and I have a tremendous amount of respect for the current representatives, and the time and commitment that’s involved.”
He sees the huge commitment to the community, and also how rewarding it is, he says, noting the similarities to being part of the team of a community-focused volunteer fire department – he is still a volunteer at the Old Town station.
“They’re doing it because they enjoy being part of a team that’s contributing to the community and making a difference,” he says, similar to council, working with staff, and collaborating as a group.
He is looking at the opportunity to serve on council not as being issue-driven, but to round out the make-up of it representing young families, while developing collaborative and constructive relationships to protect the interest of all residents.
“I’m strategic-minded, disciplined, and have taken the approach of being community-focused while also data-driven,” he says. He’s hoping to use those skills “that were relatively successful in the role of fire chef to being politically successful” in a role at the council table.
Ruller speaks of his father, who grew up on York Road in Queenston before emigrating to New Zealand, meeting Ruller’s mother, and then returning to Virgil to raise their young family. “I have a lot of great memories of growing up here,” he says, and he enjoys sharing them with his kids. He lost his father earlier this year, when the two of them were on a road trip to the U.S., and that loss has made him reflect on what is valuable in life, including the memories he is making with his kids. “I want to help ensure my kids have the same great memories I had growing up,” and that means making sure there are parks and other amenities, as well as recreational opportunities, for young families, young adults, those mid-career or retired, and that the town is “adequately meeting all those needs,” as well as the needs of tourism — that’s the important balance, he says — over-tourism can have a direct impact on families, including housing affordability. “I realize it’s all interconnected. We have to look at what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and the impact on our kids.”
His decision to run for council has sparked a lot of good discussions with his children about what it means, what it does, and why he wants to be part of it, he adds. “Regardless of whether I’m successful or not, it’s already been a great lesson about the municipality.”