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Executive Officer Leadership: The Business Side of the Fire Department

Firefighters are motivated people, seeking innovative ways to do the best job possible for their communities. Many programs provide training for future and current fire chiefs to run a successful department. However, in today’s financial and political environments, most fire departments must be run like a business, and this business side needs experts in administration to assist the fire chief.

The administrative side of most fire departments is intensive. The fire chief is charged with managing complex budgets, which includes revenues, expenditures, contracts, capital-improvement projects, apparatus and equipment purchases, grants and EMS cost recovery.

The chief is also charged with analysis of data, statistics and other metrics to provide the highest level of service to the community. Meeting all these requirements can be an unexpected and daunting task for those who started their careers wanting to be on the front lines fighting fires.

The solution is to look at the fire department as a business and develop an organization that can provide the needed support for the fire chief. Chiefs do more than just deal with the administrative side of their departments. They also need to be forward thinkers about the coming trends, lead fire operations, be politically active and oversee community risk reduction and EMS delivery.

Like any well-run business, the workload needs to be delegated to managers and leaders to oversee each division. These leaders need specific skill sets to provide the highest level of work.

One example is in the EMS division.

Typically, those in charge of the EMS divisions are firefighters who have promoted up the ranks from firefighter to battalion chief and have been assigned to a 40-hour workweek overseeing EMS. These assignments usually last a few years and have a very steep learning curve. By the time they’re up to speed and comfortable with the position, it’s time to return to the suppression side of the fire department and the next battalion chief is assigned.

This may not be the best way to grow an EMS division. One solution to consider is hiring a civilian who is well-versed in public administration and EMS, ideally has a graduate degree and plans on a career in the position.

Another example is on the administrative side of the fire department. In the past, a member who has promoted up through the ranks is assigned to oversee the administrative division. A better scenario may be to hire a civilian with a graduate degree, especially an MBA, who could manage budgets, grants, contracts and other administrative needs efficiently.

These are just a few examples and considerations on building your department’s administrative structure. Sworn members usually do an outstanding job in the administrative side of the fire department after they’re trained within their assigned position. But these assigned positions are often revolving-door positions—every few years a new person is assigned. There’s a lack of fluidity and consistency, not only within the fire department, but also with positions that have high contact with the community.

The bottom line is that successful fire chiefs need to surround themselves with highly educated and effective personnel who can deal with complex departmental, financial and political situations within the department and community.

The fire department is a business and should be run as such. The public doesn’t have a choice about which fire service protects them; department leaders must consider all potential structural options in order to provide the highest level of service to their communities.

Theodore Roosevelt summed it up well: “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”


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