Dennis L. Rubin, DC's Fire Chief

Editor's note: This month's Chief Concerns column is a departure from our usual format, in that it takes the form of an interview with one nationally prominent fire chief conducted by another. Dennis L. Rubin, who has been chief of the District of...


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As the capital of the "New South," I had to throw my hat in the ring for the Atlanta chief's job. I was very pleased to be selected and get a chance to be a "Metro Fire Chief." The pace was fast and furious, but always rewarding. The mayor was systematically reorganizing all city departments and now it was the fire-rescue department's turn. Once again, "wow" is the only word that comes to mind to describe the experience. There was some stress, but all in all what a great city government agency and wonderful fire department.

The last and current stop started in December 2006. I received a phone call from the new Mayor-Elect Transition Team Office. After months of interviews, background checks and hearings, I found myself back home in Washington, DC. My current personal theme song is that of Bon Jovi "Who Says You Can't Go Home?" It is great to be reunited with the department that I love and that is in my hometown. It is a huge honor to pin on the badge as the 25th chief of department of this great department.

WERNER: What was the single most important factor that influenced you to pursue becoming a fire chief?

RUBIN: The internal personal drive to become a fire chief happened at about the 10-year mark in my career. I felt a strong need, and still do, to have impact in the safety of our community and safety of our members. As a person goes through the ranks, it is easy to see the overall influence that you have over your company, battalion or your division. So, there seemed to be a direct correlation between input and impact coupled with a members rank. That is the primary reason (firefighter safety) that I worked diligently to obtain the job title of chief of department.

WERNER: How would you describe your style of management and who are some of the leaders (fire service or otherwise) that influenced your style of management?

RUBIN: I would describe myself as a person that looks to empower the folks that are around me to make the organization better. There is way too much work for any one person to handle, so trying to lead by example and support the growth and decisions of others is important. I always reserve the right to the final decision and take full responsibility for all that happens under my watch. But folks seem to want the freedom and the latitude to do their work and be creative.

As I have set the bar of expectations, the members have always delivered a product a little better and higher quality than I ever expected. Define the task; provide the resources; get out of the way and evaluate the results -- standard leadership process for me. I hope that I can be identified as a person that has facilitated that process.

Without a doubt, along with dozens or hundreds of firefighters, Fire Chief Alan V. Brunacini has been my role model, hero, sounding board, benchmark, close advisor, mentor and most importantly my friend. There are dozens of others, like Bruce Varner, but no one can hold a candle to Chief Brunacini.

WERNER: As you moved between fire chief positions, what were the significant differences?

RUBIN: No real differences of significance that I can tell! The iced tea in Alabama is always sweet, but not in DC. On a serious note, the basics of the organizations are amazingly similar. Perhaps the most glaring variation comes from the government structure. The internal workings of a "strong mayor-city council" form of government (Atlanta and DC) is quite different from that of a "city council-city manager" (Dothan and Norfolk) structure. You start learning those differences on the first day at work and they are not very subtle at all. However, how we operate, our core values of community service and firefighter safety, the needs and concerns of the members (labor unions) are about the same everywhere. I have found that citywide policies are more similar than different, so I would say most departments are more alike than different.

WERNER: To date, what has been the job that you have enjoyed the most and why?

RUBIN: The assignment that I have enjoyed the most is the current one, DC Fire & EMS Department. For many years, I have been preparing to be a part of this department and with a lot of good luck and fortune, I have found myself back home. We have a lot of challenges, but without a single doubt, we are the best in the nation at what we do and we will showcase the great people that make up this organization. When I was a very young child, the DCFD was recognized as one of this country's best fire and EMS agencies. The current administration, both city and department, are committed to returning to the previous state. What an exciting time to be a member of this department.