Palm Beach Fire Chief Darrel Donatto, who carved a reputation for innovative leadership and who strengthened ties between the department and the community, will retire next month after 20 years with the town.
Donatto will be succeeded by Assistant Fire Chief Sean Baker.
Donatto announced his retirement, and Baker’s promotion to the post, at a meeting of the Palm Beach Civic Association’s Health Care Committee earlier this month. His last day is Jan. 26.
Donatto presided over the department during a period marked by emergency response improvements that were tied to advances in technology and training, and by the forging of deeper ties between the firefighter-paramedics and the community they serve.
“I’m excited about where we are today,” Donatto said during an interview with the Palm Beach Civic Association. “Certainly, I believe we are in a better place than when I started.”
Donatto joined Palm Beach Fire-Rescue in 2004 as a battalion chief. In 2008, he was named division chief of emergency medical services. Three years later, he was promoted to deputy chief, managing the department under the direction of then-public safety director Kirk Blouin. Donatto assumed the title of fire chief after Blouin became town manager in 2018.
Donatto worked for Riviera Beach Fire-Rescue before coming to Palm Beach and has 43 years of experience in the field. He talked about what makes Palm Beach so different from most other fire departments.
“The one thing we have in the town is an organization that is super focused on customer service,” Donatto said. “Largely, because that’s the culture of the organization. But, also, because we have the time to do that. We don’t have to rush in, pick you up and drop you off at a hospital quickly. We have time to stop and say, ‘Hey, can I pack a bag for you of the things you’re going to need at the hospital?’ And we have a group of firefighters who think that way.”
Many residents know the town’s firefighters by name, Donatto said.
“That is because of the relationship we work hard to develop with the community,” he said. “It’s been a big focus since I’ve been in the role that I’m in. I tell [the employees], ‘I want you to get to know the people in this community. I want them to know you by your first name.’”
Donatto said he’s especially proud that Palm Beach Fire-Rescue is recognized as an ISO Class 1 Fire Department – the highest classification offered by the independent Insurance Service Office. Only 400 fire departments out of roughly 30,000 across the United States have the distinction. The rating reflects the highest quality standard of care, including exceptionally fast response times to 911 calls.
“We train like no one else,” Donatto said. “We don’t have a lot of volume in terms of big, significant calls. So, we train and train and train.”
The department also prioritizes cutting-edge technology.
“When I started back in 1981, there was no 911,” Donatto said. “You dialed a seven-digit number to reach the Fire Department. We kept our records on a piece of paper. Today, we carry hand-held computers into the scene of a call.”
Palm Beach Fire-Rescue was the first department in Palm Beach County to deploy the two-way video technology known as “Prepared 911,” which makes it possible for a caller to give the emergency dispatcher access to his or her phone camera.
“The dispatcher can see what’s going on and can send that video to the responders as they are on their way to a call,” Donatto said.
Donatto regularly attends meetings of two Civic Association standing committees – the Health Care Committee and the Public Safety Committee.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Civic Association’s communications department worked closely with Palm Beach Fire-Rescue to keep the community abreast of developments as they unfolded. “We were able to share important health and safety information through a trusted resource,” Donatto said. “I truly believe that helped save lives.”
David Duffy, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said Donatto displayed extraordinary leadership of the fire department – especially during the Covid pandemic.
“He and his team saw what was coming and they managed to obtain an unusual amount of vaccine for the community, when other departments and communities did not,” Duffy said. “He was a hero for that.”
Duffy said Donatto was always looking for new avenues to communicate the latest information about the firefighter/EMT programs to the community.
“He led the department to become one of the most innovative in programming and service – I believe unmatched in the county and maybe even the state,” Duffy said.
Donatto has been involved for more than 30 years with the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association, where he has worked with a team of chiefs to guide legislative efforts and changes in health and safety policies. He said their biggest accomplishment was the implementation of the Public Emergency Medical Transport (PEMT) Program, which created a pathway for local agencies in Florida to be reimbursed for government-based ambulance services. Under the program, the agencies received additional federal funds for every Medicaid patient that they transported to a hospital.
The program was initially funded at $25 million when it started eight years ago, Donatto said. It has since landed nearly $500 million in reimbursement to government agencies across the state. Next year’s funding alone will be $250 million.
“Those agencies with the highest population of Medicaid patients are also the ones that have the lowest tax basis to fund their programs,” he said. “This program has really helped those folks provide optimal EMS services in their communities with funding they had access to from the federal government.”
Donatto is the 2016 recipient of the fire chief of the year award from the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association and the 2017 recipient of the fire chief of the year award from the Southeastern Association of Chiefs.
Blouin said the town’s fire-rescue department and executive leadership team have benefited immensely from Donatto’s extraordinary intelligence, abundant energy, and unrelenting work ethic.
For example, Blouin said Donatto, who is in his 60s, returned to college about five years ago to earn a Master of Business Administration degree from Florida Atlantic University – with a 4.0 grade point average – even as he continued to excel in his duties as fire chief.
“He’s probably the smartest person I have ever known,” Blouin said. “He’s as passionate as a rookie firefighter coming out of fire school. He just really enjoys the work.”
Mayor Danielle Moore said Donatto is “the role model” for what all town employees, and indeed all human beings, should strive to be.
“Darrel is a kind and generous man who has been willing to share his enormous talent with his fellow firefighters and the residents of this town,” Moore said. “I am proud to call him my friend.”
Asked about his post-retirement plans, Donatto said, “I really don’t know what God has in store for me and I’ll just leave it at that.”
Baker joined Palm Beach Fire-Rescue as a firefighter in 1998 and rose through the ranks as battalion chief, division chief of training and safety, division chief of EMS and public information officer before being named assistant chief in April 2022.
Donatto said he can’t think of anyone more capable or deserving than Baker to be the town’s next fire chief.
“He is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met in my life,” Donatto said. “He really cares deeply about making that department be the best it can, about serving the people in this community and about taking care of the firefighters. I’m really looking forward to seeing all the great things he’s going to do.”
Blouin said Baker has earned the respect of the town’s elected officials, citizens, firefighter-paramedics, and of Donatto and himself.
“It was clear Sean would be fire chief one day, and that day is here,” Blouin said. “He has all the characteristics you would want in a fire chief – he’s passionate, empathetic, intelligent, knowledgeable and extremely dedicated to his profession and the community.”
See Chief Donatto’s interview on the Palm Beach Civic Association’s Studio 33480.