Being A Modern Fire Chief: It's More Than Just Firefighting

Harry R. Carter outlines the many tasks and responsibilities that must be mastered by effective future fire chiefs.


In the faraway days of my youth, I can remember thinking what a cool thing it would be to serve as chief of my local fire department. Out in front of burning buildings, leading the guys in a pitched battle against the Red Devil. I can still remember the fires in downtown Freehold, NJ. There...


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In the faraway days of my youth, I can remember thinking what a cool thing it would be to serve as chief of my local fire department. Out in front of burning buildings, leading the guys in a pitched battle against the Red Devil.

I can still remember the fires in downtown Freehold, NJ. There was the Great Fire of 1962 that destroyed a great deal of the downtown area, including my orthodontist's office, my favorite bakery and the local theater. And again in 1964, when the bowling alley and a number of stores where my parents shopped fell before the onslaught of raging fire. I can still see the chief out front, bravely making the critical decisions upon which the future of our community relied.

It all seemed so simple back then. Smoke appeared on the horizon, the fire horn sounded, everyone drove like the wind, the chief gave the orders and the fire went out. Or at least that was how it seemed. Knowing what I now know, I am sure there was more.

More Than Meets The Eye

During the early fire service years, which I spent in the Air Force Fire Service, I began to note that there was a bit more involved in being a fire chief. For one thing, while we had very few fires, we did a great deal of training. Another thing I quickly discovered was that our service was delivered at all hours and under all sorts of weather conditions. I guess I must have missed that part during my dreams of success as a fire chief.

With the passing years, I began to notice that there were many parts to the total equation I have come to know as being a fire chief. During my trip up the ladder in the Newark, NJ, Fire Department, I noted that each step up had a few more non-fire-related tasks attached to it. I began to wonder what it would be like at the top.

As a captain, I became responsible for company-level training, district fire inspections, pre-fire plans and preventive maintenance, as well as the usual array of firefighting tasks. There were reports, forms and fire cards to complete.

My years as a battalion chief were filled with such widely disparate tasks as completing employee evaluations, submitting acting-out-of-rank forms, monitoring district-level hydrant inspection programs and keeping track of the personnel assigned to my battalion. And on it went.

Upon arriving at the division command level, the mountain began to assume epic proportions. There were the budget requests, as well as the yearly, quarterly and monthly planning documents. Quarterly training schedules had to be produced, distributed and monitored. OSHA, EPA and Department of Labor regulations crept into my vocabulary.

Many memories persist from my years as a chief-level officer in the Adelphia, NJ, Fire Company. Far more time was spent at the computer than at emergency scenes. Time was spent developing subordinate officers and at township-level chief's meetings.

It seems like an iron-clad rule that as one ascends the ladder to the apex of the organization, more time is spent at meetings. Gone are the old days, when all decisions were made by the fire chief, if in fact they ever were. There is so much to do that duties must, of necessity, be shared.

Getting Prepared

Let us now take a look at the present and attempt to extrapolate outward toward what lies just ahead. What are the many tasks that you will have to master if you hope to function as a fire chief in the future?

I would suggest the following as a list to be taken most seriously:

  • Become computer literate.
  • Attend various local, county, state and national seminars.
  • Build a library.
  • Join professional associations.
  • Commit time to the National Fire Academy.
  • Train regularly.
  • Broaden your administrative skills.
  • Learn about the various laws that impact upon our daily operations.
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