Home Career Fire Chief (A.K.A Fire Service Executive): The Future of Fire Service Leadership

Fire Chief (A.K.A Fire Service Executive): The Future of Fire Service Leadership

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 By James McLaughlin

 When I attended the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program at the Kennedy School at Harvard in July 2010 there was a statement made by the program chair that I will never forget, which was “true leadership challenges the status quo.” The fire service is enriched with tradition and is a vital part of the fire service that should be passed on to younger firefighters. It is one of the reasons the profession remains so unique today. There is, however, a fine line between tradition and the status quo.

I read an interesting article in Fire Engineering magazine titled, Tactical Safety for Firefighters: Raising Fire Service Executives. This article discussed the future of the “fire service executive” and described the role as: 

“part-business class, part-firefighter, a hybrid, a unique combination of selective academic achievement mixed with a smattering of business intellect, a type-A personality with a whole lot of ideas on how to correct and change all our collective shortcomings.”

While the author was certainly poking fun at this change in leadership style, there is much to be said about the balance between traditional leadership and the executive leadership of the future. First of all, I believe there are certain practices and terms from many years ago that should always have a place in the fire department. For example, I believe the term “Chief” should never be replaced. However, I do believe the decision making and management style of future leaders should closely resemble that of a CEO, because the reality of our economic situation demands it.

It is not unusual during these difficult economic times to hear a mayor or city manager say that we need to “think outside the box.” The contemporary Fire Chief needs to “think outside the box” to increase the efficiency of his or her department because most departments are suffering from loss of staffing and/or money. A good example of “thinking outside the box” is shared services. Does every single fire department need a hazmat team, dive team, confined-space team and high-angle rescue team? Would it be more prudent to have one specialized skill within a department that could be offered to the surrounding communities when needed? While there will be those members who view it as a weakness to offer fewer services or be more dependent on an outside department for support, it will be the successful leader who clearly articulates to his and her members the long-term gain of shared services. A true leader has to have the ability to challenge the status quo to accomplish long-term success in the future. The Fire Chief who wants to keep everybody happy by not changing the way things have been done for years will not succeed in the long term.  

Purchasing power is another area where the leaders of the fire service could make major improvements. Rhode Island has 39 cities and towns in the state. If every Fire Chief agreed on the same NFPA-approved helmet or boot, the cost per unit would be significantly less. Chiefs must get together and make a compromise that everybody can live with as long as safety is never compromised. An alternative is no longer an option!

The last paragraph in the article embodies the essence of what my role is at American Military University. As both a Battalion Chief and a member of a university, I am constantly stressing the importance to young firefighters, as well as younger officers, to acquire the skills needed to become a “fire service executive.” The young firefighters today need to understand and respect the tradition of the fire service, but at the same time understand that it has evolved to become a corporation with a very large budget to provide the most vital service to its customers: life safety. 

Departments of today are very complex agencies that need to be managed by personnel with skills that simply cannot be acquired in the firehouse! My father did 34-plus years at the fire department and retired as Chief of a large department. As a young firefighter, I watched every move he made particularly during his last few years as Chief in the early 1990s. Times were very different then and funds were readily available to purchase needed equipment and provide all of the specialized services a fire department could possibly offer. Today, the fire department is a mayor or city manager’s biggest nightmare. Except for small contributions from billing for rescue transporting and code enforcement, the fire service brings very little revenue to the city, while at the same time being one of the most costly departments to fund.

It is critical for leadership to have effective communication skills, often acquired through education, to enable the “fire service executive” of today and tomorrow to develop partnerships with outside departments, other city agencies, and the private sector organizations to modify and develop their departments to operate in the most efficient manner possible. Writing skills are especially important to successfully acquire federal funds through grants to supplement the department’s budget for equipment and manpower. The contemporary Chief needs the tools that are acquired only through education to succeed in the future. Most of these high-level positions are beginning to require formalized education requirements to apply. The fire service has been slow to recognize these minimal requirements for executive positions, but significant progress has been made in this area in the past several years. It has been far too long time coming!

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