From Firefighter to Administrator: What It’s Like to Work Upstairs
By James McLaughlin
My promotion to assistant chief was effective the day after Veterans Day in November 2013. Over that holiday weekend, my wife and I went to my new office to set up for my first day. I used the back stairwell to go upstairs in a station where I had served downstairs for more than six years as a young captain and then battalion chief. For the first time in my 26-year career in the fire services, I would have a desk that was just mine—I had always shared a desk with other battalion chiefs, lieutenants, and captains.
As my wife helped me hang framed pictures in my office, I realized how far I had come from the days of taping up pictures of my family on the back of a narrow locker door. That day I remember thinking to myself how my life as a firefighter was about to change drastically.
After my new office was set up, I remember asking my wife if she thought I was ready for this promotion. She assured me it was time and that I was just understandably nervous. She reminded me how much we, as a family, have done to prepare for my new assignment upstairs, including carving out time to earn my Bachelor of Science in Fire Science and my Master of Arts in Emergency and Disaster Management along with all the time spent attending numerous courses and trainings throughout my career.
Taking on New Duties and Responsibilities
The first day on the job, the Chief issued me my specific duties. I was to oversee all department special divisions, which included training, emergency medical services, hazardous materials, dive team, grant procurement, and station maintenance. The Chief then gave me the schedule of city council meetings; I was now required to be present for all bid and budget discussions. Just a few days ago, as a battalion chief, I was to refer all council members upstairs to the Chief’s office—now suddenly I was the one representing the department at all council meetings! The first week seemed overwhelming.
The Challenges of Fire Administrators
The duties of the administrative officers of a fire department are extremely diverse. The primary responsibility is providing safety to the community and to the firefighters within the department. The high cost of equipment coupled with increased standard requirements and mandated training adds to the challenges facing fire administrators every day. Today’s fire departments provide such a wide array of services including EMS, HAZ MAT, marine/dive team, confined space, and technical rescue that the task of providing these services under tight budgets is a huge challenge.
The Value of Education
I believe that in order to successfully transition from company line officer to a chief officer a firefighter needs to develop the skills earned through formal education. Some people may look at education as simply a prerequisite for getting a promotion later in their careers, however, I think that is the wrong incentive to pursue an education.
The true value of education is developing the skills necessary to perform the job effectively and to the best of your ability. No matter what field of study a student chooses, the curriculum will include basic reading, writing, research, and communication skills that are crucial for any administrator.
Skills Necessary for Fire Leaders
I learned very early about the importance of having effective communication skills. I understood the importance of being able to be clear and concise with vendors for products and services, the press, and local and state government representatives. The interaction with my classmates over the years properly prepares future leaders with the tools necessary to communicate effectively the mission of the department. It has served me well in keeping the public informed of what their fire department is doing every day. The public and city officials want a transparent fire service.
Effective communication is paramount to lead the most important asset of a fire organization– its firefighters and support staff. Successful administrators must be able to motivate every member of the department to get involved.
Developing accounting and finance skills is another extremely important quality for fire leaders. Managing a critical service with limited funding is a huge challenge facing leaders in the fire service today. Improper financial calculations, especially during budget planning, can be devastating for a department.
Developing quality research skills is critical for administrators to secure funding. Applying for and receiving grants are critical for the survival of today’s departments. Fire leaders must have the ability to prepare persuasive and comprehensive grant applications. Progressive departments place grant submissions as a high priority and aggressively pursue grant funding in order to offset the burden to taxpayers.
Research is also critical when it comes to persuading municipalities to support the department. Whether you are pursuing the purchase of a piece of equipment or a service contract, it is critical to have a thorough knowledge of the product or service. Trust me, when you are standing before city council trying to secure the resources necessary for safe operations in your department, you want to have as much accurate information as possible. Most of these services and products are quite expensive and it is the responsibility of these community leaders to ask questions and understand the need before making a financial commitment. I advise leaders to do their homework, anticipate questions, and do the best to know the answers.
Delegation of tasks is critical for the long-term success of a department. The days of the Fire Chief making decisions without any input from other members of the organization are long gone. I use the analogy of a conductor of an orchestra to describe a Chief’s management of personnel and the importance of delegation of tasks. The Chief stands in front all alone looking at a big group wearing the same uniform and performing together to achieve the same goal. At certain times, a specific section needs to “step up” and perform alone. At the end, the whole group is performing together.
As of this writing, I am just a little more than six months into my new position. I have learned a lot and made a few mistakes. I am currently preparing to enter my first budget cycle, which I anticipate will provide a lot more lessons for me.
One of my biggest challenges has been maintaining a presence with the rank-and-file members and being supportive of their day-to-day needs. The new job is challenging, but very rewarding. I can honestly say I would not have been able to do this job effectively without the preparation that a formal education provided me. Completing my degree gave me the tools I needed to do this job effectively. My goal is not to just become a Fire Chief, but to retire as a successful Fire Chief.
About the Author: James McLaughlin has been in fire services since 1988. He has a B.S. in Fire Safety from Providence College and a M.A. in Emergency & Disaster Management from American Public University. He has numerous training experiences including the National Fire Academy as well as a fellowship at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Professional affiliations include the International Association of Fire Chiefs, New England Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Firefighters. He is currently the Fire & Emergency Management Education Coordinator at American Military University.