Chief Concerns: The Dozen That Make a Difference

“The Dozen That Make the Difference” presented in this series represent character traits a person should possess to be a good candidate for fire chief or for moving up in rank within a department. Please remember that the traits presented in this series are the “important list” according to me. I didn’t put them into any particular order and there are more preparation steps you can take to succeed as a fire-rescue service leader.


9. Community


The ninth trait a fire chief must master is to be involved in the community. You need to get out and be seen in every area of your community. People generally like their fire chief and want to see him or her at various events. I try my best to make at least two community meetings per week (mostly evening meetings – on the customer’s schedule, not mine). Typically, there are many opportunities with faith-based groups, neighborhood organizations and civic clubs that will provide a great venue for the fire chief to be in the community.

While making civic fire and injury prevention program presentations, I have had the platform to answer community-based questions about how we deliver services, with a recurring theme being “Why does a fire truck show up when I called for an ambulance?” What a great way to learn (first hand) what the community thinks about their fire-rescue department and learn new ways to make the operation better. The fire chief can’t get better feedback and input (even from the best top-dollar consultants) than from the citizens the department serves. Over the years, I have developed an informative civic program that is available to Firehouse® Magazine readers by contacting

A closing thought about presenting fire and accident prevention information is that we must continue to focus on prevention as our first line of defense and not our last, or as an add-on service. You can say you read it here first, but the best fire or medical call is the one we can prevent.


10. Departmental Involvement

You have to be involved in all phases of your department’s activities. You need to see and be seen at all types of fire department events. Sounds so simple, but it is sometimes overlooked by the chief. I try my best to visit at least one fire station per week, at a minimum. Generally, it is an informational visit and I skip all of the pomp and circumstance, the idea being that I do have a first-hand understanding of what is going on out on the streets and what the needs and issues are of our members.

There are formal ways to have structured feedback, such as labor relations meetings and various functional committees, which are critically important. However, sometimes that unvarnished truthful input by the front-line members is invaluable. In one department, I was approached by an entire shift. The purpose of their discussion was to make an operational suggestion to greatly improve the “out-of-service” hydrant-marking systems we were using. Earlier that day, the lieutenant had the battalion chief express concern that the company had missed a hydrant on an earlier alarm. When the lieutenant saw a plastic ring on the hydrant, he made the reasonable assumption that it was out of service. Prior to this company’s improvement suggestion, we used a white plastic ring that marked both “In Service – Needs Repairs” and “Out of Service” and of course the hydrant was marked “Needs Repairs” that day. The suggestion was painfully simple, logical and easy to implement. We changed to a red reflective metallic ring (“Out of Service”) and a green reflective metallic ring (“Needs Repair”) and the hydrant-testing program was greatly improved.

Those of us at headquarters would never have thought about this improvement, but what a great suggestion it turned out to be for the department. I would never have learned about this issue without being in the fire station. I understand that adding more work (station visits and activities) to the responsibilities already placed on a modern-day chief is significant, but the value far outweighs the effort.


11. Develop Members

Perhaps the second most important responsibility a fire-rescue officer has is to develop his or her members to take on more responsibility within the organization. The first priority is the safety of the members and that “Everyone Goes Home” from every alarm. But just behind that looming duty is the responsibility to develop your people to be all they can be on and off the job.

The difficult part is being sure you reach out to everyone in an equal and fair way. The best foundation is to operate a great training division that provides all types of information to all members all of the time. Besides selecting the best management team for your organization’s training staff, the chief must make sure the budgetary resources are in place to sustain a comprehensive training effort. In the times of depressed government revenues, this is tricky. A lot of departments are using online and other computer-based training programs to keep costs under control. Great idea, but the overall approach should be comprehensive from recruit training to retirement planning. Consider all delivery methods to build the best training system possible.

The fire chief should not overlook the vast external training programs that are famous for developing personnel for more organizational responsibility. Many great training programs are available at a reasonable cost and provide more than a good return on investment. Among the places to send your people for advanced training programs are the National Fire Academy, Naval Post Graduate School and Harvard Business School’s Executive Education Program. Don’t forget your state and regional fire academies as well, because it will take many different forums to develop members to their full potential over careers that may last 25 years or longer.

I’m not sure where I heard this quote, but it is so appropriate: “If you think training and education cost an organization a lot of money, check out the price tag on ignorance.” In the days when just about everything we do has the potential for legal action (suing someone for something), training becomes a corporate must instead of a nice to-do function. Think about it!


12. Network

The final item on my list of important traits for a fire chief to possess is to be effective at networking. When I speak of networking, I am using the term in its broadest sense and referring to all aspects of the process, so that the chief is connected within the department, within the community, within the region and within the American fire-rescue service. It is difficult to keep up with all of the changes occurring on so many levels.

Used effectively, networking should greatly improve the information and understanding a chief may have on an issue or problem. It would be wonderful if everyone could master everything about our business. Knowing that is not possible, a great replacement is to network with a wide variety of people to provide input for decision-making and planning purposes. Perhaps one of the best ways to gather the mission-critical data needed for any decision is to have an effective network of people from which to refer. The wider the networking circle, the more sources of information that are available. The trick of this trait is to select people in your circle who are well informed and capable of providing you with good insight.