Young fire chiefs come of age

Young fire chiefs reflect on what it took to earn the respect of their firefighters

Credibility means a lot in the fire service. But in the eyes of many firefighters, credibility is closely connected with age.

For the growing band of young chiefs in the nation's fire departments, it means they face an uphill task to be accepted.

Billy Hayes, the 36-year-old chief of Riverdale, Ga., Fire Services, is all too familiar with the phrase, "You're not old enough to be a chief."

Hayes, who will lead a special seminar that bears the title of the same phrase at next month's Fire-Rescue International in Atlanta, was appointed chief at 29, becoming the youngest ever fire department head in the Atlanta area.

Hayes said that, when it comes to the top job, age is irrelevant.

"There's a saying that you can have 25 years on the job — but have been repeating the same experience each year for 25 years," he said.

"Still to this day, although I have built up a lot of support, a lot of people still look at me and think I'm a kid."

Hayes has assembled a panel of young fire chiefs to speak at next month's conference.

Learn from others
While they all agree that being young has many advantages, they say it is vital for young chiefs to draw on the experiences and wisdom of more senior department members.

"When I was asked to be chief, I told them (department members) they would all have to help me," said Carl Smith, who will be on the panel.

Smith became one of the country's youngest ever fire chiefs when he was given the post at Thunderbolt, Ga., Fire Department when he was 23.

Now 37, Smith has overseen the department's transition from an all-volunteer organization to the combination department it is today.

He has been with the department since he was 13, when he joined its junior official program. As soon as he was old enough, he began going to the fire academy, taking as many classes as he could.

Smith said a major reason behind his appointment was the increasing office-based demands put upon volunteer chiefs in recent times.

"By the time the old chief left, the demands on what you had to do as a chief and the hours you had to put in had changed so much," he said. "Everybody at the department felt that I was the person who could step in and get it done."

Department support
The appointment was made easier, Smith said, by the fact he had the support and backing of the vast majority of the people in the department.

"But being 23, it did still make it hard," he said. “I was younger than most of the people in the department."

For those who find themselves in the position of being appointed chief at a young age, Smith said it is vital to utilize the skills of older officers.

"The main is thing is working hard to show them respect and working hard to make sure that you earn their respect," he said.

"But there's always people who think they know more than the chief does — even more so when you're a young chief."

Just under 10 years after his appointment, Smith broke even more traditions when he became president of the Georgia Fire Chiefs Association and president of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs — the first volunteer chief to hold the position.

It is the breaking of fire service traditions that many older members find difficult to take, according to Ohio Fire Marshal Michael Bell.

He accepted his current role in April, after serving as chief of the Toledo Fire Department for 17 years.

Bell was given the Toledo position at the age of 35, an appointment that made him the youngest fire chief among the nation's metropolitan fire departments.

Breaking traditions, he said, and the ramifications that come with it, can be tough for new young chiefs.

"When I went to local area chief meetings for the first time, they'd look at me and be like, 'Who is this guy and what kind of department does he run?'" Bell said.

"You need to be patient and understand that you are breaking tradition, so some people will not be accepting."

Rose through ranks
Before becoming chief, he had risen quickly though the department ranks, working as firefighter, paramedic, rescue diver, lieutenant, training officer and National Fire Academy instructor.

But nothing can ever prepare you fully for becoming the chief, he said.

"Probably the greatest day of your life is being named chief," said Bell. "Probably the worst day is the next day, when you go in as chief and you realize the enormous responsibility you have for the whole department."

He said credibility should never be mutually exclusive to age, but be based on quality, knowledge and expertise a young chief can offer.

Like Smith, he said it was vital that young chiefs seek out support and advice from older members on the department.

"If there is negativity towards you, it's not necessarily because of you but what you represent, which is the threat to tradition," he said. "You just have to be extremely patient."

Hayes said he plans to discuss all of these issues when he leads the seminar on the subject next month.

As part of his preparation, he has carried out research into the different generations that work together in today’s fire service – baby boomers, Generation X and Generation Y.

Typically, he said, fire chiefs are still mainly baby boomers, those in their 50s and 60s.

"The baby boomer generation have a more paramilitary style," said Hayes. "They've come up through the ranks and have worked in every single position."

Generation X, he added, can be defined as people in their 30s, who "typically are hard working and will sacrifice anything for their job."

Finally, according to Hayes, Generation Y comprise of people whose "leisure time is as important as anything else in their lives." 

The new breed of chiefs from Generation X is playing a vital role in bringing the different generations together, he added.

"I, and people like me are trying to be the bridge between the two and try to get understanding between everyone," he said.

"Another big skill younger chiefs have is good interpersonal skills. It's no good just having just one style, just being autocratic — you can't come in with a generic management style anymore."

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