Chief Concerns

Fire Chief Finishing School, Part 1 – Getting Ready to Move Up

Jan. 2, 1996, was a very special and important day in my career. After 24 years of dedicated fire-rescue service, from rookie to battalion chief, I was selected to be the next fire chief for the City of Dothan, AL. When I won the opportunity to pin all five trumpets on my collar, Dothan was a community of about 65,000 people and boasted a great fire department that consisted of six fire rescue stations employing 144 members. The city was growing; attracting new businesses and expanding its position in the global marketplace with companies like Sony and Michelin. The city manager was ready to go in a different direction. He would say repeatedly to me, “Let’s raise the bar and provide better government.”

As I moved my family, the emotions of pride, career attainment and high adventure were soon replaced by stark reality and apprehension of being responsible for running a fire department. Was I ready for this new responsibility? Had I completely prepared myself to meet the challenges of “better government” that our city manager, Jerry Gwaltney, placed on me? Could I lead our great department into the 21st Century?

This column is the first in a three-part series on preparing to be the chief executive fire officer in a diverse and growing community. Each column will examine four preparation steps that must be considered as one wears the white coat and white helmet. In fact, this series will be great guidance for anyone preparing to move into the next higher level in a department, regardless of rank.


1. Be Nosy

The first item that must be considered is to be nosy when you first get to your new department or when you take on a new assignment. As you are getting oriented to the new job, develop a check list (reduce the list to writing for future reference) of critical items and issues that must be addressed for your agency to be successful. This may sound a crazy or too basic to you, but if you are accountable, do not cut corners. If it is a critical item, check it to see whether your department measures up. Dr Edwards Deming (the “Total Quality” guru) wrote, “Only the items that get measured are the items that get made in an organization or business.” It’s human nature and sound logic to focus on the important stuff first, but if the issue is a mission-critical one, you must check on it initially and on an ongoing basis to ensure compliance before the issue or item grows into a serious problem.

In the spirit of education and not placing blame, when I was appointed chief, I was amazed to learn that we did not independently test our aerial ladders. We did not conduct annual service tests on our pumping engines. We did not have breathing-air samples tested and certified. Hose was not tested. I’m sure you get the idea. These are basic items that make us a functional fire-rescue department. Rather than waiting for an unmanageable disaster to happen, we worked on fixing these items within the first few months of my arrival. Not only were we a better department for the effort to meet minimum standards, but the fire chief’s office gained credibility by tending to the critical details from both the members and city hall.

The second part of being nosy is to follow up on the various checks on an ongoing basis. Some items, such as aerial ladders, hose and pumps, must be checked annually. Other items require attention on different cycles, such as checking fire station smoke detection equipment monthly. Sounds simple, but you have to get out of your office and do it. It was President Ronald Reagan who coined the phrase, “Trust, but verify.” Add this to your personal vocabulary and use it often.


2. Be a Good Communicator

The next trait to know if you are prepared to command a fire-rescue department is to be a good communicator during all situations – emergencies and non-emergencies – and the ability to communicate to a very wide range of people both inside and outside the agency. After serving with several departments as chief, I developed a PowerPoint presentation that I show to all command officers within the first week of starting a new job. The presentation is designed to review my goals, objectives, personal philosophy and rules that we will use to run the department.

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