The heart-stopping footage of the UC Davis Fire Department tackling some of California’s largest wildfires makes clear that Fire Chief Nathan J. Trauernicht is no stranger to a challenge. He is a passionate leader and public servant who has focused his remarkable career on empathy, innovation and planning for the future. He’s also a major Star Wars fan who’s seen every film — and may even have some gear.

Driven to serve

We don’t often describe people’s careers as a “calling” these days, but that term — defined by Merriam-Webster as “a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action or career” — seems especially apt for Nathan’s path to becoming fire chief. “I have wanted to be in fire and emergency services for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I come from a family of nurses. At the most instinctual level, I have a deeply ingrained desire to help others in their time of need.”

As a child growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, Nathan’s play centered around pretending to be a firefighter. His weekly preschool progress reports, thoughtfully saved by his mother, all describe his eager anticipation to visit the local fire station. He was such a regular fixture there that the station hosted his birthday parties. When Nathan turned 14, he jumped at the opportunity to experience fire station life through a youth firefighting program. There, he learned about the industry, accompanied firefighters to emergencies and solidified his path.

Nathan received his bachelor’s degree in fire protection and safety engineering at Oklahoma State University — one of only a handful of universities in the U.S. to offer a four-year degree in a fire-related field, and the most elite. From there, he became a volunteer firefighter and intern before launching his career. He has served UC Davis since 2008.

Today, as chief of the UC Davis Fire Department, Nathan oversees a department that serves more than 40,000 people. When his crew responds to emergencies — including some of the most powerful wildfires to strike Northern California and Nevada — you’ll find him working hand-in-hand with mentees while providing strategy and direction.

Nathan encourages the teams he leads to practice empathy in all situations and to keep the bigger picture in mind. “We are the profession that you call when you have run out of people to call for help,” he says. “We all have struggles in our lives, and people often call us for help on one of their worst days. If each interaction is rooted in compassion for the community we serve, and for each other in the workplace, it sets the framework for relationships.”

Leading with authenticity

In between emergencies, Nathan draws on the knowledge learned through his master’s degree in public administration and decades of mentorship from other firefighters to implement a leadership strategy focused on compassion, opportunity, authenticity and growth.

“As a teenager, I had a great mentor who helped guide me on my journey in fire and emergency services,” he says. “Now, I seek out those who have promise for impact in this industry and leverage every resource at my disposal to help them achieve excellence and set the example for them to pay that forward to the next generation.”

He adds, “The greatest source of pride in my career is when I get to hire new firefighters or promote one of our existing employees. As someone who loves this profession, the greatest thing I get to do is to welcome others to the fire and emergency services industry at the beginning of their journey, and to recognize exceptional professionals as they move into leadership positions because of their hard work and dedication in service to the community.”

“This has always been a difficult and dangerous profession,” Nathan says. “Today's firefighters are working through the challenges that everyone faces in day-to-day life, while also navigating the impact of cumulative trauma.” In addition to mental health concerns, firefighters face job-related physical health risks, including a high rate of cancer. Acknowledging these health concerns is just beginning to gain traction in the industry. Nathan is committed to using his platform as an industry and campus leader to raise awareness of the firefighters' needs. He also has frank conversations with his team to help make sure they are supported.

Inspired by innovation

Looking to the future is something Nathan takes seriously — both for his department and himself. “If you work anywhere for a long time, you can begin to lose sight of the possibilities. I try to reimagine my role, and that of our department, every six to nine months; to explore new ways for us to make a difference in people’s lives, stay engaged in the work we do, add value to the services we provide and feel fulfilled. At UC Davis, we get to do things that most fire departments can’t, like innovate! We are constantly challenging norms around the fire department’s role in the community and the ways we can impact the lives and health of those on our campus.”

This innate desire for ongoing improvement has inspired Nathan to pursue a number of notable innovations — among which are a 911-connect smartphone app, regional multi-agency training division, and community firefighting/fitness class. In 2015, the Sacramento Business Journal recognized him as one of its “40 Under 40” outstanding business leaders. He continues to look ahead to consider what may be next on the horizon — a complicated task as each California fire season seems to be longer and more intense than the last. But, he remains confident. “As the world changes, so does the job of a firefighter,” he says.

Within the next five to 10 years, Nathan predicts that firefighters’ roles will expand to include greater participation in emergency services and medical care, disaster management, mental/behavioral health services and community risk reduction, including an expanded role in serving unhoused populations. He looks forward to tackling these challenges while continuing to serve UC.

“I love working for UC because it’s more than just a place; it’s an idea that we all can contribute to the betterment of our society through our combined efforts. No matter what your job is at UC, you are part of making lives better around the world!”

Meet Nathan

Name: Nathan Trauernicht

Title: Fire Chief

Department/Unit: Fire Department

Location: UC Davis

When did you start working for UC? May 19, 2008

In five words or less, what do you do for UC? Help in times of need.

Why do you love working for UC? Working for UC instills a gratifying sense of contributing to the greater good through supporting and safeguarding our academic mission. The culture within the UC system helps inspire the spirit of innovation in a field like fire and emergency services to reimagine our work and how we better care for our community in unique ways that fit our unique campus. It is deeply meaningful to know you are part of a lifelong collegiate experience amongst students, faculty and staff that will help shape tomorrow for our region and may lead to the betterment of the world!

What's something people don't know about you (such as a hobby or passion outside of work)? I am a big Star Wars fan and am so excited about the expansion of storylines that has occurred over the last several years. I may even have a screen-accurate set of Storm Trooper armor from “Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope.” I can neither confirm nor deny…

Who’s your dream dinner guest (living or dead) and why? My dream dinner guest isn’t anyone famous or of great historical significance; it’s actually my 13-year-old daughter. She is my choice because I know that no matter how challenging my day has been, we will laugh, tell stories, smile and feel loved — plus we like the same food!

What's the best career advice you've ever received? When something happens at work that frustrates you, makes you mad or makes you sad, try to wait 24 hours before responding. Relationships get damaged by knee-jerk responses to things that with some time and distance can be handled with calm, clarity and maybe even a little wisdom.

 Editor’s note: Read more about Nathan on his UC Davis bio.