Chief Concerns

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

This is always a very interesting, valuable and challenging day at the office. After this half-day session, I can figure out who is with me and who will need to be convinced or persuaded to be a partner on the newly forming team. In retrospect, I guess I should not have been surprised when some members retired soon after this meeting. (To obtain a copy of my program, please email Columbia Southern University at; they have graciously agreed to mail this program out to Firehouse® readers.)

The same presentation is shared with company officers the following week (after a little “soak time” with the executive team), letting the chiefs absorb it and question the material. If there is need for adjustment to the material being presented due to local issues (collective bargaining agreement as an example), this is the perfect time and place for an update. I have personally delivered this presentation to all officers at three departments and at one place, Assistant Fire Chief of Operations Lawrence Schultz asked to make the “rounds” with the information. Of course, I was delighted to have his support in my first week and I gladly let him present the program. On each platoon, he was accompanied by the shift commander and battalion chiefs to deliver the message to all officers. Truth be told, the material likely had more impact coming from the assistant chief, who grew up in the system, rather than the new outsider.


3. Be Patient

The third preparation step I recommend is to be patient. Most of the members at the Dothan Fire Department are Heaven-bound for letting me learn how to be a patient chief. The four-plus years spent there was invaluable for me to truly learn how to be a fire chief. I wanted to change everything and I wanted it to change overnight! When Mr. Gwaltney asked for better government, he didn’t say for me to be slow and methodical, but that was the lesson I learned at great personal expense. Nicknames like “Tornado” and “Speedy” popped up everywhere and I took them as terms of endearment instead of what they were meant to be – great and indirect advice.

After about six months, one of the battalion chiefs helped me through my learning deficiency by telling me a World War I story. The savvy battalion chief talked about “The Great War,” discussing the various general officers and their use of “horses.” He went on to say that if the general ordered the horses to work beyond their physical limits, the units that the general commanded had higher-than-average soldier losses. The reason was simple: the horses were used to move a lot of the field artillery. If the horses were not handled properly, the protection of the “big guns” was not available to cover for the fighting forces. As the A Shift commander put the finishing touches on the story, it clicked that he was describing my missteps and giving me great advice. I did finally get the message that not everyone works at the pace of the new fire chief working 60 hours or more to prove himself.

Take the time to evaluate your staff, first hand and personally, as part of the “take-your-time process.” I received many reports from many people about the skills, knowledge and abilities of the top staff. I have found that if I file the information away and take the time to evaluate at least the second and third layer of the organization, new stars are born and a few fall.


4. Be Prepared

The next item is making sure you are prepared for the role of fire chief through training and education. When I entered the fire department as a career firefighter in 1971, most fire chiefs didn’t have a college degree. In fact, some had not completed high school. How the times have changed, for the better, “raising the bar of government.” The minimum acceptable level of admittance to the top job is a bachelor’s degree or even a higher level of post-secondary education. It has been interesting to watch our service become more professional with each passing year. Having a solid educational base, training and experience are the keys to being ready when the “coach” (city manager or mayor) calls your number to play.