10 chiefs answer: What does it take to be a fire chief?

Fire chiefs share the critical skills, characteristics and motivations they believe are needed to hold the top spot


No one said it was easy to be the boss.

Serving as the face of the fire department, managing budgets, navigating political waters, setting the vision and mission for an entire workforce, and ultimately ensuring the safety of your members and the community is no small feat. So what does it really take to be a successful fire chief who can balance all these tasks?

We reached out to 10 chiefs – all of whom who have connections to the International Association of Fire Chiefs and participated in our annual Q&A series on hot topics facing the fire service – to find out what they believe it takes to hold the top spot.

What does it really take to be a successful fire chief who can balance myriad tasks? (Photo/John Odegard)
What does it really take to be a successful fire chief who can balance myriad tasks? (Photo/John Odegard)

Nathan J. Trauernicht, fire chief of the University of California - Davis Fire Department

Being a fire chief starts with the ability to embrace humility and the simple recognition that your mission as chief is to exhaust your daily efforts to ensure that your community receives the best possible service from the emergency responders who you have equipped to do their job safely and effectively.

Patience must be practiced every single day. The chief should consistently have the most level head in the room. Always listen to what’s being said around you, use what you hear to cultivate opportunities, then empower your team to create their own success. Surround yourself with people who have complementary skill sets to your own, value differences of opinion they bring, and listen to their perspectives carefully when weighing decisions.

Learn to be a good loser because when things don’t work out the way you had hoped, you need to be able to handle it with class.

People like to know what you want from them. Learn to set expectations clearly and deliver the message consistently.

Don’t give up on people who have lost their motivation, keep engaging them – never discount them.

Find a way to keep your passion for the job strong, root your purpose in supporting your people who do the job, and be relentless seeking innovative ways for making your community safer.

Read more from Chief Trauernicht: Q&A: Taking a stand against firefighter occupational cancer

Mark Novak, fire chief of Vail (Colorado) Fire and Emergency Services

“Becoming a fire chief first and foremost requires a deep sense of obligation to serve the community and the fire service. If this is not the motive for pursuing this position, you will be frustrated and let down.

As with most positions in the fire service, being the fire chief is more about hard work than about recognition. One has to have strong intrinsic motivators that arise from providing the vision, resources and the environment that allow others to do their job well in order to find satisfaction in this position.

To become a fire chief, you will also need a strong support network. You need a supportive family that is willing to make the many sacrifices that go with this position. You will also need the support of a mentor or mentors, an advisor and a confidant. These roles are essential for the continuous personal growth that this position requires and to provide honest feedback to identify potential blind spots.

Finally, you need to prepared emotionally for a position that is full of many great experiences as well as some incredibly difficult times.”

Read more from Chief Novak: Q&A: Fighting fire in the ever-changing wildland/urban interface.

David Hall, former fire chief of the Springfield (Missouri) Fire Department 

“To be a good fire chief, you must have the trust of others. The community you serve must trust that you are doing what is in its best interest rather than the department’s or your own self-interests. The firefighters must have trust that you value and care about them as individuals. Your command staff must have trust you are working to build their success, not just yours.

Trust is not a skill you possess. It is something others give to you. Fortunately, most people tend to provide a basic level of trust to someone they do not know. Unfortunately, trust is easily lost and slow to be regained. This means a fire chief must apply their skills, such as communications, honesty, collaboration, empathy, commitment and decision-making, to constantly build the trust of others while avoiding situations where they lose trust through actions such as unilateral decisions, micromanagement and overreactions.

Good fire chiefs know this and are constantly asking whether the actions they are about to take will build trust within their community and their department or whether it will break it down.”

Read more from Chief Hall: Q&A: The importance of interagency coordination for active shooter readiness.

Michael O’Brian, fire chief of the Brighton Area (Michigan) Fire Authority

“You need a strong work ethic, passion for emergency services, with strong attention to detail and the ability to put first things first.

Fire chiefs today are strong community leaders who have been tasked to solve complex issues outside of emergency incidents. Their ability to focus attention while establishing direction, gaining commitment and motivating those involved are core concepts.

I believe that fire chiefs need to be naturally curious, highly motivated, have strong engagement in the organization and community, and be determined individuals.

Each fire department and community has its own personality, and the fire chief’s ability to navigate the internal and external political environment is key.”

Read more from Chief O’Brian: Q&A: The fire department role in identifying and mitigating community hazards

Craig Daugherty, fire chief of the San Juan County (N.M.) Fire Department

“The answer is long enough to fill a book. However I’ll boil it down to a theme of command presence. When I say command presence, it’s in all the things we have to be as chiefs in the following list. We also have to convey leader’s intent, which is tied to our overall strategic direction, then trust that our organization will go out and do what’s right, because we have showed them what right should look like, while still honoring our legacy and traditions.

Through that process, we have to be mentors, coaches, listeners, counselors, disciplinarians, decisive, objective, subjective, trustworthy, trusting, empowering, passionate, visionary, communicators, understanding, forward-thinking, change-agents, present, knowledgeable, ethical, empathetic, loyal, inspiring, compassionate, adaptable and hard-working. All of these are bound together by a servant’s heart because you are there to serve your people (department and constituents) to the best of your ability.”

Read more from Chief Daughery: Q&A: Fighting fire in the ever-changing wildland/urban interface.

Norris Croom, fire chief and emergency manager for the Town of Castle Rock (Colorado) Fire and Rescue Department

“There are many personal and professional attributes needed to be a fire chief. Terms like excellence, dedication and service come to mind. Honor, integrity, strength (both mental and physical) and leadership are some other key terms that will guide you on the fire chief path. And, you need to be humble.

You also need the appropriate level of training and education, but you don’t have to be the expert in everything – that’s why you surround yourself with those who are. You need to understand the difference between leadership and management, as there is a big difference between the two. 

Probably the most important aspect of being a fire chief is adaptability. This profession is ever-changing, and you have to be able to change with it. Generational differences in your employees, technology, changes in strategies and tactics, revisions of regulations and statutes, and the ever-present issue of funding are perfect examples of how you have to adapt to meet the current need. 

You have to be able to adapt leadership styles based on the situation at hand. One situation may call for servant leadership while a fireground decision may be more autocratic. We all have a boss whom we report to, and those bosses change. Whether it is a mayor, council, town manager or district board, if you cannot adapt to meet their needs, you’ll be looking for another position.

Ultimately, adaptability is key. Otherwise, you’ll be left behind, and you don’t want to end up like the dinosaurs.”

Read more from Chief Croom: Q&A: Active shooter prep requires adapting to the ‘new normal’

Ed Rush, fire chief of the Hartsdale (New York) Fire Department

A good fire chief is equal parts leader, manager (definitely not the same thing), mentor, psychologist, babysitter, teacher, arbitrator, father, sounding board, politician, planner, logistician, budget expert, mechanic, cook …. I could go on forever, but you get the idea.

You need to be a good person and have good character so you can lead by example.

A fire chief must have a thick skin. You are the middleman between the membership and the politicians, and both sides can be brutal. You can’t take things personally because you will have to make decisions that will not be popular.

You need to have a selective memory – short for some things and long for others. Sometimes you must be able to forget what just happened and move on, but other times you need to store stuff in the memory banks for use later.

You must be decisive and courageous. You will be making decisions that will affect people’s lives forever, like the chief in Worcester who stood in the doorway of the Cold Storage Warehouse and said, ‘No more.’

You need to be passionate. We all say that firefighting is more than a career, it is a passion. That must be more so for the chief than anyone else.

You must be selfless. Of all the management styles you read about, I truly believe the chief should subscribe to the Servant Leader theory. You have to be there for your people and not forget where you came from, while at the same time remembering that you work for the elected officials and the people that elected them – not an easy juggling task.

And most important, you have to be a good firefighter. People on the outside might not understand, but I tell every probie class on their first day that someday well down the road, you will retire. And at your retirement party, you want someone to stand up and say, ‘he was a good firefighter,’ and that is the ultimate compliment.”

Read more from Chief Rush: Q&A: The life-and-death impact of firefighter training

Gary Ludwig, fire chief of the Champaign (Illinois) Fire Department; president, IAFC

“Being the fire chief requires you to be versed in many areas. Not only are you an administrator, but in many cases, you must know the principles of managing multiple fire companies on a scene. You must not only know budgets, but you should also know how an ordinary masonry brick constructed structure responds to fire. You may manage budgets and fires, but the biggest and most important thing you will do is lead people. As a result. you need to not only be a leader, but a counselor, therapist, coach, facilitator, listener, strategist, change-agent, visionary, delegator, team member, influencer, and decision-maker.

You have to be politically astute. You might have to deal with a city manager, mayor, city council or a board of directors. These are not only people who you answer to, but they are your customers and you must meet their expectations in the same manner you would interact with a taxpayer in the community. To be successful as a fire chief, you must learn and know all these roles. You might be a successful incident commander, but unless you can work within a political environment, you will fail miserably as a fire chief.

What it takes to be a fire chief is to also remember that it is no longer about you. You are at the bottom of the organizational chart. It is about your firefighters, your fire department and the community you serve. You are not the priority. Making yourself the priority or at the top of the table of the organizational chart also means you will fail miserably. Go forth, and serve well! 

John M. Buckman III, former fire chief for the German Township (Indiana) Volunteer Fire Department

“Desire to serve. The role of a fire chief has changed significantly. Today’s fire chief serves in the role of ‘Chief Survival Officer.’ The community depends on the fire department to respond to and take care of their problems. The firefighter depends on the Chief Survival Officer to advocate for their health and wellness as we respond to the public request for assistance. The trauma a firefighter experiences impacts their ability to function normally. The actions of the Chief Survival Officer results in a better quality of life for the public and the firefighters.”

Read more from Chiefs Buckman and Ludwig: Buckman and Ludwig: Chief to chief and president to president

Richard Carrizzo, fire chief of the Southern Platte Fire Protection District in Missouri

“The world of being a fire chief today still resolves around creating an organizational culture where people want to come to work, be happy, along with having a safe career/retirement, while still running a public citizen-based business. Work as a fire chief has adjusted in having the ability to balance more exterior meetings and teleconferences with still being heavily involved internally, more than it is being on fire scenes (as fire chiefs were known for). As a fire chief you must have the competency to adjust as the environment changes around the fire service.

Data is also very important in the position, with decision-making processes for all public safety! As fire chiefs, you should be getting data that you can use and not just be getting data to have data. Be sure to ask for the data you need to help you make decisions for the community and organization, while keeping your firefighters safe!”

Read more from Chief Carrizzo: Q&A: Chief to chief: Understanding the FirstNet impact

Editor's Note: What do you think it takes to be a fire chief? Answer in the comments below or send us your feedback at editor@firerescue1.com.

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