Executive Leadership in the Fire Service Observations Part 1

Where It’s Been and Where It Needs to Go: Preparation and Application

One of the priorities of the IAFC’s Executive Fire Officers Section is to address executive leadership development through planning, training, and application. Moreover, it is important for our industry to prepare the next generation of fire chiefs through succession planning. As a fire service we have been notorious for concentrating on operational improvements and we have made strides in educating potential first line leaders through company officer development. But what are we doing to prepare potential command staff officers? Is our workforce reluctant to take the next step because they lack the confidence in the capability of assuming progressive levels of leadership? What can be done to prepare our leaders for executive-level roles? Where are our next Fire Chiefs?

We corresponded with Dr. Denis Onieal, former United States Deputy Fire Administrator, to get a better impression of the state of executive leadership and succession planning in the fire service. Where do we need to go in order to best position our workforce? In this article, we discuss the first part (of a two-part discussion) Executive Leadership - Preparation and Application:

Q:  Dr. Onieal, in your career, how can you best summarize executive leadership development in emergency services?

A:  I think the biggest leap in development is moving from the chief fire officer to chief fire executive. Chief fire executives are city / organizational leaders in addition to the community’s fire expert. The chief fire executive is expected to be a key member of the city management team whose responsibilities include public safety, disaster preparedness / emergency management, community development, strategic planning and a greater sensitivity to the demands of the citizenry. A chief fire executive demonstrates the value of diversity; that a team with different perspectives produces better results. The one thing that I’m thrilled to see is the increasing number of women and people of color, many of them EFO grads in those top positions and the great job they’re doing.

Q:  What qualities of executive leaders have not changed from generation to generation?

A:  Leadership is a position of responsibility, not a privilege. Leaders work with and through people. Regardless of the generation or situation, leadership has never been all sunshine and lollipops; sometimes, you must do things that you never thought you would ever have to, and it can be gut-wrenching. When things go wrong, leaders take responsibility for their actions, decisions, organization, and subordinate managers. Leaders behave and react in predictable ways; people in the organization know what to expect. Leaders first hold themselves responsible and then their subordinates for their performance.

Before the Normandy Invasion, General Eisenhower composed a note wherein he took full responsibility for the potential failure of the invasion. Fortunately, the note was unnecessary - but he didn’t know that when he wrote it.  In my experience, it took a while for that kind of leadership example to be applied in the fire service.

Q:  What has changed (or needs to change) most dramatically within executive leadership?

A:  Perhaps the one dramatic change is a greater sensitivity to the business model in the fire service: the occupational and environmental changes that will challenge the status-quo. Since the turn of the 21st century, there have been disruptive technologies that toppled once invincible institutions – Kodak (Kodak invented digital photography and the digital camera), Sears (Sears invented the mail order business), IBM (IBM invented the business computer) and Xerox (Xerox invented copiers). To prevent that from happening to us, we must be sensitive to the changes in our environment. I know we all think that municipal fire services are invincible; but we need to pay attention to the demands of the citizenry and the changes in the profession - or we’ll wind up just like the others who ignored the changes in the environment and over-relied on their reputation.

Two examples of disruptive changes in our environment are the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic collapse. The virus threat to our personnel, the increase in the number of personnel infected and the increase in EMS responses has stressed many departments. County and municipal services are typically funded by income, property and sales taxes.  Every one of those revenues is in rapid decline.  Some mom and pop businesses and commercial real estate may never recover, and they generate a large percentage of all three taxes. Larger companies are assessing whether they need to rent or purchase all of that office space when everyone is working from home using email and Zoom.

Q:  What is an executive leader’s primary function (primary goal)? How can that leader best prepare him or herself? How can they best prepare their organization?

A:  I think the fundamental goal is the survival and prosperity of the community, the organization, and its people. Application of that effort that takes many forms, depending upon the organization and the mission. Leaders can best prepare themselves by first doing their current job well and then helping their immediate supervisor do theirs. You may not be able to change your entire government, but you can work on fixing your part of that world. If you’re the chief, do your best to make the fire department the city’s most valuable government agency. If you’re a lieutenant, don’t worry about running the entire department, work on those items that best improve your company.

Second, get outside your organization. Check your formal education boxes. Attend the National Fire Academy, your state fire academy, national and local professional seminars and workshops. If you’re at or near the top of your organization, send others in your organization to these places – let them breathe some different air; expose them to the new ideas and let them initiate some changes when they get back. They need to see a different part of the world rather than just your organization. Develop and expose your staff to new ideas and different experiences so they’re better prepared to lead when their time comes. Invest in the future of the organization, not just your tenure.

Q:  In your crystal ball, what do you see in the future for the fire and emergency service (the inevitable)? What does the executive leader need to plan for now (setting a foundation, providing direction)?

A:  Students who have attended the National Fire Academy (just about everyone reading this!) have heard this before. There are a couple of things:

The importance of data is critical. The National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) is the standard bearer. NFIRS is a reliable, valid tool used by 25,000 fire departments reporting 28 million fire department responses a year. Exercise caution around systems that are untested and unreliable- especially if you don’t know where your data is going or who is going to have access to it. You must be able to compare your data to others. If your system isn’t producing the information you need - if it is clunky or difficult - go to your software vendor and make them fix it the way you need it. NFIRS is neither hardware nor software – it is a standard, just like other standards. If your new pumper doesn’t start, you don’t call the NFPA to change Apparatus Standard 1901– you call your vendor to fix the truck. Same with NFIRS. There are some great stories out there about fire departments using NFIRS data to expand services, justify equipment purchases and add staff.

Secondly, I believe that municipal emergency services will have a DMZ between law enforcement and fire / EMS. It’s a very simple concept – when a person threatens a person, law enforcement will respond. When a thing threatens a person (and that thing can be a heart attack, a fire, a wind-blown sign, a flood) the fire department will respond. As such, fire departments will be expected to be more engaged with community risk reduction and emergency management than they have been in the past. That’s going to be a big growth area for fire departments along with EMS. Failure to engage in those service areas will reinforce the potential of obsolescence (Think: Kodak, Sears, IBM, Xerox).

The third area executives need to consider is EMS. The boomers are getting older and they’re going to put a demand on EMS that we’ve not experienced in the past. Everyone reading this should check their local census and planning data to find out what percentage of their population is over 70. Census data is another data source that fire executives can use to plan for and justify services. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are experimenting with some new delivery models and reimbursement platforms. Changes to EMS programming are incentivizing private companies who would be more than happy to provide those services in your community. Pay attention to the environment. (Did Sears see Amazon coming? Does IBM regret calling the personal computer a toy in 1975?).

Fourth is understanding that if you choose government service as a career, any government service, you’re never going to have enough people and money to do what it is you want to do. You will always compete for your piece of a fixed budget pie – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Your success will depend upon your professional preparation (education, training, experience, continuing education), your exposure to new and current ideas, your interpersonal skills with other government leaders, and your use of the political process. And before anyone misinterprets the use of the word, by “political”; in my use of the term, politics is the art of influence. For good or ill, leaders influence every day – by the way they act, the way they speak, the way they dress, the way they treat others, the amount of homework they do and how they engage all facets of the government and the community.

Q:  As the Deputy Fire Administrator and as the Superintendent of the National Fire Academy, you have witnessed the “speed of government” and “prioritization of government funding.” What is one of our biggest priorities when addressing organizational sustainability? Is this something within our grasp? If not, how long will it take to realize (preparation and planning)?

A:  Understand one thing – we exist in a democracy. The democratic process is slow and painful; it’s supposed to be. By design, no one is 100% in charge. The alternative to democracy is fascism - efficient and quick, but under the direction and the whims of a dictator. The key to organizational sustainability in a democratic society is staying involved with the community and the community leaders through good times and bad. Keep your ear to the ground. Understand the city / county budget and make all the meetings. Make sure the mayor, the city council, and the power-players know who you are; let them see you in the room, participate; and show them you are engaged and well informed.

My favorite song from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play Hamilton is, “In the Room Where It Happens.” In that part of the play, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers are discussing how things get done in a democracy. Here’s an excerpt:

“No one else was in

The room where it happened

The room where it happened

The room where it happened

No one really knows how the game is played

The art of the trade

How the sausage gets made

We just assume that it happens

But no one else is in

The room where it happens.


In God we trust

But we’ll never really know

What got discussed

Then it happened

And I wanted what I got


When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game

But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game

Oh, you get love for it. You get hate for it

You get nothing if you…

Wait for it, wait for it, wait!”

So, you have to be in the room – the caucus meetings, the city council, the neighborhood meetings, the planning and budget committees because that’s where it all happens. And it’s not a game. If you think that fire service leaders can ignore politics, then you don’t have a clue. The lack of participation results in administrative failure. Former Fire Administrator Ernie Mitchell had a saying, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” In my time at the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy, we showed up for everything, and so did every one of our predecessors.


Joe Pulvermacher is the Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director for the City of Fitchburg (Wisconsin). He is credentialed as a Chief Fire Officer through the Commission on Professional Credentialing, a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and the Great Lakes Director of the Executive Fire Officers Section of the IAFC. Chief Pulvermacher is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree from the Center of Homeland Defense and Security through the Naval Postgraduate School. Joe sees the need to continually evaluate training requirements in order to address a constantly changing profession (affected generationally by a regularly changing workforce) and is motivated through positive impacts in workforce development, succession planning, and organizational ownership.

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