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‘It takes time to find your spot’: Lessons from 1 chief’s transition to battalion chief

Devin Flannery shares his experience with the company officer to chief officer transition

The promotion from firefighter to company officer is the most difficult for many firefighters because it requires them to create a degree of separation from their peers if they are to effectively function in their new role of leading, guiding and directing firefighters. Their daily action must be congruent with being an “agent of the fire chief” because that’s what they are.

Chief Devin Flannery.jpg

Courtesy photo

The second most difficult promotion is getting a battalion chief’s badge pinned on your shirt. That promotion puts you into middle management for the organization, a position that’s been compared to an Oreo cookie – a soft, gooey middle between two hard cookies. The BC is the gooey center, with station personnel and upper management being the hard cookies – and the BC’s job is to keep it all together, keep the members connected.

Devin Flannery, a 20-plus year veteran with the South San Francisco (Calif.) Fire Department, was recently promoted to battalion chief, and agreed to share his experience with the company officer to chief officer transition.

FireRescue1: What got you into the fire service?

Flannery: When I was 7 years old, I shared a bunk bed with my younger brother, Danny, who was just 2 years old. One night I woke up to a horrendous sound of him struggling to breathe, and I called my parents for help. Danny was barely breathing while my parents rushed him outside. The local fire department arrived and saved Danny’s life. He passed from a rare disease a year later. That night was etched into my soul as I watched the firefighters revive him. I knew that being a firefighter was all I wanted to do.

FR1: What was your career path leading to your promotion to battalion chief in SSFFD?

Flannery: I was working as a paramedic in Santa Clara County when I got the job offer from SSFFD in March 2003. After probation, I worked as a paramedic preceptor, field training officer and EMS shift instructor for the department. I earned my qualifications in technical rescue and became a boat operator for our water asset. I had the opportunity to collaborate with some talented individuals in standing up our department’s tactical medic program.

Over the years, I earned my acting engineer and acting captain qualifications so I could learn the positions above me. I was promoted to captain in November 2020 after being an acting captain for 10 years, and I was promoted to battalion chief and assigned to our Training Division in August 2023.

FR1: What were your impressions of the job responsibilities of a BC in SSFFD prior to your promotion?

Flannery: We are fortunate to have acting BC positions within the SSFFD. Although you get to understand the operations, administration and training positions, nothing can prepare you for being in the position. I had the mindset of “I am only the acting guy” or “I am here temporarily.”

Once you are promoted, everything is your responsibility. The mindset shifts to becoming accountable and supplying leadership to the department. Wearing a gold badge means that you own everything: the good, the bad and the ugly. You can’t call in sick, turn your head the other way or hope that it just goes away. You must stand up and handle issues head-on as the leader they promoted you to be.

FR1: You earned your undergraduate degree and graduate degree, and you’re now working on your doctorate degree. How did that prepare you for promotion to BC?

Flannery: I graduated high school with a 2.65 GPA and no ambition to go to college. I was going to go to paramedic school so I could get a job. Not many people had college degrees to get into the fire service, and I went through half of my career thinking that was normal.

In 2015, I enrolled for college because of SSFFD’s education incentive; my plan was to just get a bachelor’s degree at California State University – Sacramento. At the same time, I began preparing to take the captain’s test and I also applied to the National Fire Academy’s Managing Officer program.

After I got into the NFA program, I noticed that all the instructors had graduate or doctorate degrees. When I spoke with one of the instructors and asked why, he responded, “Who do you think writes the textbooks you are reading now?” I was hooked. No one had ever told me that I could do that in the fire service.

I continued my journey and am now 18 months from finishing my doctorate (spring 2025). By the time I am done, I will have been in college full-time for the last 10 years. What I learned is that each level of education helps put more tools in your toolbox, meaning I have skills to analyze complex human performance issues on the training ground, develop strategic plans, or evaluate cultural phenomena within the organization. Having any type of degree doesn’t necessarily make you “smart”; being able to apply what you learned is what makes you a leader.

FR1: What did you do to prepare yourself for that first day as a BC?

Flannery: Preparing for the first day was surreal. I walked through the apparatus bay and heard someone say, “Good morning, Chief.” I turned around to see who the chief was, before realizing they were talking to me. There wasn’t much to do to prepare because I had spent two decades honing my craft in firefighting and I had those experiences in acting roles. Now I was the one that had to ensure that everyone has the tools to do their jobs and that everyone goes home safely.

FR1: What are three things from that first day as a BC that had you thinking afterward “That went well”?

Flannery: The operational side of the job was the same thing I’d been doing over the years, just from an unfamiliar perspective; now I had to use those skills and supply management oversight to the emergency scene. I also had to be accountable for myself before I could expect accountability from others. I think that’s something you must master if you want to provide good leadership for your officers and firefighters.

The administrative side takes time to learn. There are programs to manage, develop and implement. Bills must be paid, the checkbook must be balanced, and someone must be looking over the horizon for the future threats to our community. It takes time to find your spot and provide your input in the group.

FR1: What from those first days as a BC had you thinking afterwards “Wow! I didn’t expect that!”?

Flannery: I realized that the promotion brought with it an almost automatic divide between the people you previously worked with on the line. Maybe they don’t trust the administration, they were on the same promotional list as you (and didn’t get the promotion), or it’s simply that they never liked you personally.

My personal philosophy is to move past that and accept that 10% of the people will like you no matter what, and 10% of the people will hate you no matter what you do. So, focus on the 80% who haven’t made up their minds.

FR1: If you could go back and talk to the younger you, what would you tell them?

Flannery: I realize just how much I missed during those first 10 years of my career. I’d tell him to continue your education after high school even if it’s only taking basic college classes that apply to any degree. While you’re doing that, keep your eyes open and see what excites you about the organization, then get educated about that.

Get involved with things outside of your assigned duty station, and start making relationships for the future. For instance, I became an instructor for the department, but I didn’t get to know others in the training division, what they did, and what I could learn from them.

And don’t just pay attention to uniformed personnel, get to know the civilian employees in those other work units. As fire officers, we rotate through various positions every couple years, and those folks who spend many years working in the different divisions of the department can only help our growth and development. But they must know and trust you first.

Learn the internal politics and positionalities within the organization. It’s another side of building relationships and it’s important given the amount of work that gets done today through work groups, many of which cross divisions of the department.

Help bridge the communication gap between upper fire department management and line personnel. As a middle manager, you must be informed and educated about what’s happening above you in the organization and below you. And it’s your responsibility to share the information you learn in the appropriate context with your bosses and the people you work with.

In sum

Let’s summarize Chief Flannery’s insights:

  • Don’t stop working on your formal education. Find what excites you in your department and learn everything you can about it.
  • Learn early in your career about both the operational and staff functions in your department because you never know where your career will take you.
  • Seek out and develop relationships with both uniformed and civilian members of your department.
  • Work on being a good communicator using the proper frame of reference for your audience.
  • Some people are going to like you, and some will not. Focus on those who still haven’t made up their mind.
Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.