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

Aug. 1, 2000
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 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.

There are many of you out there who labor under a fear of technology. To be a successful fire chief, you must be computer literate. This takes me back to the first computer I bought for myself in 1985. I was intrigued by the TV commercials that showed the housewife taking the computer out of the box, plugging it in and writing a best-selling novel. That did not happen to me. It was a week before I could spell my name and actually save it. However, in the years since, I have moved steadily higher in the computer food chain. I now have megs and gigs beyond anything imaginable in my computer childhood.

You need to jump aboard the computer train or risk being left in the last century. There are many places to gather this electronic acumen. Local adult schools and community colleges have a wide array of courses available.

Next, I would advise you to leave town. Not in the Wild West sense of "get out of town, pardner," but in the "travel to seminars and conferences" sense. You must climb up out of your day-to-day rut and see what the rest of the world is doing. A good place to start would be at the Firehouse Expo, which is held in Baltimore each July. Listen to the words of those who have something to share. Be sure to ask questions, take notes and exchange business cards.

I have been traveling to seminars of one kind or another since 1970, when I left the U.S. Air Force. Whether the topic was fire, EMS, business or motivationally related, there was always a lesson to be learned. If you are going to lead others, you must know a great deal, and not just in the technical side of the fire service. You need to learn about how people think, act and are motivated. This can be done by interacting with others at seminars.

No one ever learns everything they need to know about anything. I have been in this business for 35 years, and I am still learning. You learn by reading, experiencing, doing, critiquing and re-reading. But how can you learn if you do not have a library, or at least access to a library? A number of firms sell books to the fire service. Call for a catalog. You should seek to acquire at least on book in each of the following areas:

  • Firefighting strategy and tactics
  • Administration
  • Leadership
  • Management psychology
  • Structural collapse
  • Safety
  • Robert's Rules of Order
  • Fire Protection Handbook from the NFPA (reference)

There may be others, but these are a good place to start. Once you begin reading, your love of reading will grow, and so will your library. Since you are reading this article in Firehouse® Magazine, you may already have your first periodical. If this is a borrowed copy, subscribe. There are others you may wish to acquire.

You will also need to join one or more of the professional associations which exist to improve the expertise and influence of their members. Whether it is the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, the National Fire Protection Association or the International Association of Arson Investigators, spend the time and money to step outside of your daily life and move to a higher plain. If your budget is limited, seek to join state or county associations which will meet your educational and interactional needs.

Training & Networking

This leads to the next obvious suggestion. If you can manage to devote the time, please make it a point to attend a National Fire Academy course. Which one you choose is up to you. Don't worry, they are all good. They will challenge you to grow and allow you to make contacts with fellow travelers in the world of fire service leadership. Some of my greatest learning has come from professional networking interactions. You learn by sharing.

Constant training is a critical element in any plan you might put together to become a better fire chief. This training should cover the gamut of skills which both you and your staff will need to provide a competent, professional service to the citizens in your community. This plan should be based on a periodic cycle, so that over a two- to three-year cycle all of the necessary topics are covered.

In Newark, we published a quarterly training schedule based upon the International Fire Service Training Association's (IFSTA) Essentials of Firefighting manual. Each company received a copy of the manual, and the daily drills revolved around the topic listed. Periodic multiple company drills were conducted under the aegis of each battalion chief.

It will take some time and effort to get this done. Help may be available from county, regional or state fire training authorities. Reach out and see who is there to help you.

An essential part of your personal, professional development program will involve the improvement of your administrative skills. As the chief, you will need to be able to prove who your fire department is and what it does. Years ago, my fire company in Adelphia survived a State Public Employee Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) inspection thanks to my recordkeeping system.

As the fire chief, you are charged to prove what you have done. You should use the existing system in your department. If it is pen and paper, use it faithfully and seek to computerize it. One of the best sets of maintenance records I ever saw was in Hainesport Township, NJ. It was kept in an old-style composition book, but every bit of work ever done to the department's equipment was logged in it. I was able to follow everything that was ever done to their 1967 pumper throughout its service life. I was able to assure the mayor of that community that any money allocated to fire equipment would be well spent - and that the equipment would last for many years.

Lastly, become intimately familiar with all of the laws which may have an impact on you or your fire department. While the requirements vary from state to state, it is incumbent on you to map out the legal lay of the land wherever you live.

An article in the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety newsletter, New Jersey Fire Focus, was the stimulus for this article. In an article titled, "Congratulations! You Made Chief! Now What?" Chris Eckert of the division staff laid out a department-by-department list of each law with which fire departments in New Jersey are required to comply. In this article he listed laws from the following agencies:

  • Division of Fire Safety
  • New Jersey Department of Labor
  • New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services

Under each of the agencies, the various laws were cited and their provisions covered. I will list them for you, so that you might determine the areas you will have to research in your state or province:

A. Division of Fire Safety

Mandatory incident management system
Mandatory live fire training regulations
Fire service training and certification

B. Department of Labor

Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health Act (PEOSHA)
Mandatory reporting of employee injuries and fatalities

C. Department of Health and Senior Services

Respiratory protection
Bloodborne pathogens
Hazmat (under 29CFR 1910.120) by state adoption
Indoor air quality
Right-to-Know training and record keeping

This list is just a starting point. The rules, regulations, laws and codes may be different in your state or province. What we are strongly suggesting is that you need to do this type of research for your community. One of my favorite saying for the boss is that ignorance of the law is no excuse.

It's Up To You

Being the fire chief in your community can be a tremendously rewarding and exciting period of your life - if you do things correctly. Otherwise, the only thing I can promise you is chaos.

Take to heart what has been said in this article. I have climbed the mountain and enjoyed the view. I want you to have the same sort of safe trip I did.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. He is also an associate professor at Mercer County Community College and a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). He may be contacted through his website at [email protected].

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