Past IAFC Fire Chief of the Year winners say advice, encouragement and support is key to reaching your goal

With almost a century of combined fire service experience, chiefs Alan Martin and Bill Halmich have spent their careers working passionately under a teamwork mentality

Having a dedicated, skilled and professional team is all a fire chief can ask for.

With almost a century of combined fire service experience, fire chiefs Alan Martin and Bill Halmich understand how rare and precious that combination is. They've both spent their careers working passionately under a teamwork mentality.

After receiving the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Fire Chief of the Year award, which is presented annually by the IAFC and Pierce Manufacturing at the general session of Fire-Rescue International, they acknowledged the climb – while sometimes an uphill battle – was made possible thanks to an immeasurable amount of advice, encouragement and support from their mentors and colleagues.

Pictured left to right: Alan Martin won the Career Fire Chief of the Year Award in 2014. Bill Halmich won the Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year Award in 2016.
Pictured left to right: Alan Martin won the Career Fire Chief of the Year Award in 2014. Bill Halmich won the Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year Award in 2016.

The Fire Chief of the Year Award honors one career and one volunteer fire chief for their leadership, innovation, professional development, integrity, service to the public and contributions to the fire service.

Martin, who became chief at Tuscaloosa (Alabama) Fire and Rescue in 2002, won the Career Fire Chief of the Year Award in 2014. After 44 years in the fire service, he retired from the department in 2018. Prior to his time as chief in Tuscaloosa, he served 28 years with Birmingham (Alabama) Fire and Rescue Service.

Halmich, who served as chief for the Washington (Missouri) Volunteer Fire Company, won the Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year Award in 2016. Halmich, a 53-year fire service veteran, retired from the department in 2018. In addition to his fire service career, Halmich is a U.S. Army and Vietnam veteran.

I interviewed Chiefs Martin and Halmich about what inspired them to become fire chiefs, advice they would give their newly appointed selves, and what they think it takes to become Fire Chief of the Year.

What (or who) inspired you to become a fire chief, and what does that title mean to you?

Chief Martin: There were several people from the Birmingham Fire Department, where I was working at the time, who had gone on to be fire chiefs in other cities. I wanted to see if I could follow in their footsteps. I had also been working as an assistant chief for several years, and I felt like I had something more to offer. I wanted to see if I could use what I had learned and meet the challenge of being the chief. Being the fire chief is a huge honor. It means you're allowed to represent your family, department, city and the citizens you serve.

Chief Halmich: In the mid-70s, Jim Silvernail, with the Ballwin Fire Protection District, and I worked several training initiatives with Elvie Vaeva, president of the St. Louis County Training Coordinators. These dedicated, respected associates became personal friends as well as respected fire chiefs. Their example, along with that of my predecessor Chief Don Hahne in Washington, Chief Neil Svetanics in St. Louis City, and Chief Richard "Smokey" Dyer with Lee's Summit Fire Department, provided encouragement, counsel and support after I was promoted. Two of these chiefs became IAFC Career Fire Chiefs of the Year during their tenure. I viewed my recognition as a form of personal gratitude to all those who contributed to my success.

The position of fire chief carries with it the fire service responsibility to protect every citizen of the community, their property and their visitors – 24/7 and 365 days of the year.

What was your reaction upon learning that you were selected as Fire Chief of the Year?

Chief Martin: I was shocked when I heard that I was selected. I was thinking the fire chief from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, isn't selected for something like that. I was very humbled, because I knew there were so many people that had so much to do with anything I've ever done personally and everything we had been able to accomplish in Tuscaloosa and with the Alabama fire service as a group. When I looked out at the previous winners that were there at the dinner and saw the people that I had read about, listened to and admired for so many years, I still couldn't believe I was in that group.

Chief Halmich: The prestige of the International Association of Fire Chiefs organization is what makes this award so special. The IAFC is a fire service organization with longstanding worldwide admiration and influence. It offers viable solutions to current real world challenges. With personal friends that were previously Career Fire Chief of the Year recipients, I was humbled and elated at the same time. I, nor my family, will ever forget the exceptional time in San Antonio, Texas, at FRI 2016. It remains a heartfelt memory for me of what is possible for even small-town volunteer fire chiefs in this great country of ours.

In your opinion, what made you stand out from other nominees?

Chief Martin: I don't try to stand out. We were willing to take a stand and be passionate about what we were doing. At the same time, we were challenging fellow chiefs to accept responsibility and be accountable for what happens in their cities – even if it's not the most popular thing.

Chief Halmich: I worked diligently to seize every opportunity and provide a living leadership example on how to accomplish our department's mission statement: “The Washington Volunteer Fire Company is determined to be the most innovative and effective fire department in the country. To achieve this goal, it will be one customer-oriented organization, a culture in search of excellence and greatest cost-effectiveness in its delivery of fire prevention and protection, rescue services, property conservation, environmental protection and emergency management. Significant resources shall be devoted to maintaining the highest standards of performance within the realm of economic feasibility.”

If you could go back and tell yourself (as a newly appointed fire chief) one piece of advice, what would it be?

Chief Martin: Listen more than you talk. Hire good people, promote good people and let them do their job. Give them the direction they need and the resources to get the job done. Then, give them the credit when they do. Remember you are really working for the folks in your organization, not the other way around.

Chief Halmich: Example is the best general order. On your journey, be articulate, focus on performing each individual "step" exceedingly well with integrity and the "stairwell" will be effortlessly made. Once the work is completed, genuine, heartfelt gratitude must carry the day.

What advice would you give to this year's Career and Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year?

Chief Martin: It is an honor of a lifetime to be selected. Don't forget where you came from and who helped you get there. Keep doing what you did to separate yourself from the others and pass on what you learn.

Chief Halmich: As a Vietnam veteran, I identified with and follow Lt. Colonel Hal Moore's advice: "Leaders should constantly ask themselves two things: what am I doing that I should not be doing and what am I not doing that I should be doing?"

In your opinion, what's the biggest issue fire chiefs should be concerned about today?

Chief Martin: One of the biggest is firefighter health and wellness. For many years, firefighters have been dying from heart disease and stroke. That is still a major concern. Now we have cancer and mental health issues to deal with in ever-increasing numbers. Integrating the new generation of firefighters along with the changing technology is going to be a challenge for several years to come. 

Chief Halmich: I sincerely believe that fire service training – our foundation – will continue to demand more allotted time. I see this demand increasing due to more advanced sophisticated equipment, science-influenced tactics, toxicity research discoveries, low frequency, high-risk fire events, medical field advancements and public (customer) expectations. Some venues will discover the need to redefine the scope of their capabilities, resource allocations and associated costs. As my admired and dear friend Chief Bruno would say, "Be nice and connect with Mrs. Smith, and remember customers are internal and external."

What change(s) do you expect to see in the role of fire chief over the next 5 years?

Chief Martin: Fire chiefs must be willing to accept responsibility for fire prevention and education activities themselves by making it a priority. They are accountable. They can't delegate that away to the fire marshal. It won't be easy for some of them, because their entire career has been firefighting and, in most cases, emergency medical services. I know that because I was one of them. What would our fire fatality situation look like in our country if we had spent just half the time, effort and money on education and fire prevention as we have on EMS for the past 40 years?

Chief Halmich: Providing credible, politically involved leadership with integrity to meet the inherent funding challenges necessary to provide an essential service for a dynamic, ever-changing, ever-evolving local landscape. Implementing cost-effective service delivery technologies to maintain communication with end users (Mrs. Smith). Defining and addressing their concerns appropriately to foster a grassroots community support will be imperative. The aggregate of every response performance, regardless of type, determines your brand. Brand matters more than ever!

For those who aspire to achieve such a prestigious award, what do you believe the recipe for Fire Chief of the Year success is? 

Chief Martin: I believe the recipe for success is to focus on what you can do to make your department, and yourself, better every day and not be concerned about the other things.

Chief Halmich: Lead from the front with integrity. Know when to command, demand and compromise. Put "them" first. Remember responsibility's twin: accountability. Managers get things done; leaders do the right things. Enter no battle without reconnaissance. The good news is the IAFC, through conferences, online forums, networking and member resources, can assist with all of these. It worked for me.

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