Very few people entering the fire-rescue profession aspire to become a fire chief. I certainly didn’t. I joined a volunteer fire department when I was 14 because I always wanted to be a firefighter. I had no desire to be promoted. After high school, I went to work for AT&T, where I had a great 25-year career in telecommunications. When I discovered over time that I enjoyed sharing my knowledge, my goal became promoting to volunteer Training Chief. Then one day, my department needed someone to step up as Fire Chief, and I found myself raising my hand.
Even if you’re not sure you want to become a fire chief, applying some of the suggestions here will enable you to become better at what you do now, in the future, and as you mentor other members. Untapped leaders are the bread and butter of the fire-rescue service, and they are prevalent throughout our agencies. Your colleagues and your community need you to share your knowledge and experience regardless of your rank/position.
Getting the best out of others is an important life skill. Here are some characteristics shared by fire chiefs who do that:
- Organized in life, generally
- Dedicated to their priorities: faith, family, job, agency
- Passionate about public service
- Balanced, decisive in dealing with department and community politics
- Educated - degree(s), certification(s), street smarts/knowledge of how things work
- Keep up with current trends inside and outside the profession
- Generously share their knowledge and experience
- Basic proficiency in finance, budgeting, accounting
- Visionary - see and communicate the public safety “big picture.”
- Strategic acumen - able to look ahead and evaluate the accuracy of what they see
Here are some practical ways to attain the above characteristics:
- Create a professional development plan. Identify a career goal at least five years out. Work backward to specify relevant objectives. Incorporate your agency’s requirements for each rank. Look outside of the fire-rescue service: take management, leadership, budget, and finance courses. Internally, volunteer for ad hoc and standing committees that will teach you what the department wants and needs, what the community is willing to support, and how you reconcile the two. Learn the basics of your department’s and your community’s budgets. Review your plan regularly to ensure you stay on track.
- Network internally. Begin developing relationships during your recruit class. Learn what officers do by observing and asking questions. Find a mentor. Ask for advice—shadow someone in another job. Share what you learn with others; ask them to do the same. Take advantage of the professional development and networking opportunities offered by industry associations such as the IAFC that allow associate members. Join the IAFC’s Company Officers Section and/or Volunteer and Combination Officers Section.
- Network externally. Join local organizations. Coach Little League or other team sports. Accepting the responsibility to manage or lead a group allows you to hone skills you will use at the firehouse. Develop connections with people throughout your community; you will need their support to provide the service they want and need.
- Have fun! Enjoy what you’re doing now, as well as your journey to becoming a fire chief.
Even if you learn (along the way) that fire chief is not the role for you, the discovery process will make you a better version of who you are now and will be in the future. What have you got to lose by embarking on, or continuing, that journey today?
Chief Flynn is the fire chief at Suffield Fire Department in Wethersfield, Connecticut. He also serves as the chair executive on the IAFC Volunteer & Combination Officer Section (VCOS) as well as the 1st Vice President of the New England Association of Fire Chiefs.