A week in the life of a fire chief: ‘It’s lonely at the top’
A Monday to Sunday breakdown of what’s it’s like to serve as a fire chief for a mid-size fire department
I want to preface this article with what an honor it is to serve as a fire chief. This is by no means an article of complaint. It is important to share a glimpse in the life of one fire chief so others may have a better understanding of the position and give a bit more grace to your chief. Yes, there are many stresses and challenges, but it truly is an honor to serve in this capacity.
It is Sunday evening, and I hear the "tick, tick, tick" of "60 Minutes" on the TV. The sound reminds me of when I was a young boy. When I heard that, it was about time for bed. That sinking feeling set in of having to go to school the next day. The only difference now: I am an adult, and I have to go to work in the morning – as a fire chief.
Monday: ‘I should feel refreshed’
4:45 a.m.: The alarm sounds. No snoozing. I rise and immediately check my phone to ensure that I didn’t miss my dispatch center attempting to contact me about a fire, or the on-duty battalion or deputy chief trying to reach me. I also check my emails. They come in at all hours. My phone is tethered to me morning, noon and night.
5 a.m.: No time to waste. I turn on the news, watching for other fire agencies that had incidents overnight ... and the weather, of course.
5:30 a.m.: I grab a quick cup of coffee and a power bar and head out the door.
6 a.m.: I hit the gym. This is my primary stress-reduction activity. It gives me a sense of control, as I know no one is going to take care of my health except me.
7 a.m.: I pull into the station and get to my office. It is amazing how much goes on at the department over the weekend. Just like a deli, they line up waiting to tell me their issues: broken equipment, apparatus problems, station maintenance, personnel issues, citizen complaints, city manager needs a staff report ASAP, the list goes on.
The morning drags on as I triage the weekend’s events, plus a quick briefing with my BCs, my administrative assistant needs signatures, returning calls from other city department heads, concerned citizen groups and, of course, emails.
12 p.m.: Lunchtime! I go upstairs to close my eyes for 5 minutes when, over the station PA, I’m called back to my office. A fire equipment vendor unexpectedly showed up for a demo.
2 p.m.: Back to triage!
6 p.m.: Before I know it, my admin assistant knocks on my door to say goodnight. She is amazing. She knows when to bring something up and when to nudge me to stay quiet. She has my back, and there are times I have found out later she has handled many small “fires” that easily could have gotten out of control. I thank her for the day’s work and pack things up to head for home. A little windshield time allows me to call a few close constituents. I need to vent a little, but before I could say a word, they are emoting all over me with their own issues. We’re all in the same boat.
7 p.m.: I get home and grab the mail. Nothing but bills and fire publications. I just left work, but I can’t help but sit down to dinner and start reading the magazines or perusing online sites to catch up on the day’s news. It’s important to stay current, but when is enough, enough? Hold on a minute, let me check my cell phone.
I remind myself of a Bible verse "to much is given, much is expected." As a fire chief, you have been given a lot, so a lot is expected!
Tuesday: ‘Immediately side-tracked'
4:45 a.m.: Wake up, turn the news on, check the phone, pour a cup – my morning ritual.
6 a.m.: I hit the gym before the long day begins.
7 a.m.: Upon arrival at the station, I dive into last-minute preparations for my staff meeting with the city manager and other city department heads. Immediately side-tracked, I am directed to prepare a report for wildfire season for the 7:30 p.m. City Council meeting this evening.
8:30 a.m.: The City Manager staff meeting starts. This means three hours of department heads sharing their stories, problems and budget woes.
11:30 a.m.: Staff meeting concludes. I need to run as I have a Rotary Club meeting at noon. Suddenly, the city manager needs to talk to me. It’s like being called to the principal’s office. I quickly play the tape back in my mind, thinking what I could have done wrong. He simply advises me of what he wants in my report for tonight’s meeting. Of course, my report is already done, so now I need to adjust. The city manager is very supportive of the department and personnel. Though he means business and expects a lot out of his department heads, he has a huge heart and would give you the shirt off his back if needed. I am fortunate to serve under him.
12:30 p.m.: I’m late for the Rotary Club meeting, so I try to slide in under the radar but am immediately called out by the “Grand Poobah.” I am soon asked to spearhead a fundraising event for the club. I knew I should have been there on time!
2 p.m.: I head back to the office to redo my report for tonight’s City Council meeting.
5 p.m.: The on-duty crew invites me for dinner. The firehouse kitchen. How I miss being with the crew here – one of the most sacred places in any fire station. I miss it and being on shift responding to calls. The firefighters are, in a way, like having kids. There are a few that can be a challenge, but for the most part, they aim to serve. I could not be prouder of them and more honored to serve as their chief!
7:30 p.m.: It’s time for the City Council meeting. I deliver my report about wildfire season, which takes about 15 minutes. Several council members have some legitimate questions; others have no clue what they are asking about. I tell myself I am not a politician and question why I am here, but like it or not, as a fire chief, you really are like a politician.
11:30 p.m.: After the meeting ends, I spend an extra 30 minutes on the steps of City Hall listening to community members with their various points of view about the city – nothing to do with my department. “Just be a good listener, Sam,” I remind myself.
Though there will always be those in the community that have issues with me, most of the people in the community respect and appreciate their fire department. They are always there to support our events or give back when times are tough economically.
11:59 p.m.: Time to head home.
Wednesday: ‘It’s like a target is placed on your back’
4:45 a.m.: Alarm clock sounds. Feels like I just went to bed!
5 a.m.: Turn on the TV, make some coffee, get my uniform ready and head off to the gym.
6 a.m.: I have to cut my workout short to prepare for the 8:30 a.m. fire department staff meeting for which I forgot to create an agenda.
6:45 a.m.: I arrive at the station. I see the on-duty battalion chief pacing nervously in the back of the station. He approaches to brief me about a personnel issue with a captain at another station.
7:30 a.m.: I finally put that agenda together.
8 a.m.: In the office and at my desk. My administrative assistant forwards me a phone call from an irate citizen complaining that the engine was at the supermarket three times yesterday. I check the run log and notice they had a busy day running multiple medical and fire calls. At least I have an explanation for the concerned citizen. Even after 30 minutes of explaining why there would be that many supermarket stops, the citizen refuses to comprehend. “See you at the next council meeting!” he screams!
8:30 a.m.: The staff meeting begins. Some points to keep in mind: If it is not the city manager upset with you, it is the union. If it is not the union, it is a city council member wanting to bend your ear. If it is not the city council, it is an irate citizen. It seems someone is always upset at you, and it can be challenging to not take it personally. After all, one of the reasons I was promoted was because I am an analytical person, great at mediating issues, and liked by the members of the organization and the community. Funny how that changes when you become the chief. It’s like a target is placed on your back.
10:30 a.m.: I have a meeting with the union president and vice president. They are demanding repairs be made to the stations. I remind myself what the city manager told us in the department head meeting: “Watch your budgets! We need to do more with less. The city is running in the red!” Many chiefs experience a strained relationship between labor and management. I am fortunate that the union has a cooperative spirit and is willing to work together. Trust and communication are key in collaboration.
12 p.m.: At least it’s now lunchtime! I am invited to lunch by the chief of a neighboring agency. It will be good to have a constituent to commiserate with. We sit down at a local lunch spot when I am approached by a citizen complaining that Ms. Smith has not cut her brush back. “If a fire starts on her property, you will be held accountable,” warns the citizen. It seems everyone wants a piece of me today!
2 p.m.: It is Development Review Committee (DRC) day. I was directed by the city manager to be on the DRC committee to review new construction, signage, remodels, permits, businesses coming to town, etc. I am amazed at the requests people have for their home or business. Colors, designs, shapes and sizes. I’m a fire chief, not an interior decorator! For every approval, there are two or three that we do not approve. This, of course, leads to pushback, creating more work.
Thursday: ‘Is this where I am supposed to be?’
4:45 a.m.: You know my routine by now. But this morning, I have my Los Angeles Area Fire Chiefs meeting downtown.
6 a.m.: I start the long and congested commute to be there at 8 a.m. You never know with LA traffic; some days you can be there an hour early, other days an hour late.
8:20 a.m.: Today, I arrive late. I walk in and a heated discussion is already in full swing. “Lay low,” I tell myself. So many chiefs using big words and acronyms unfamiliar to me. My head is spinning. “Is this where I am supposed to be, I ask myself?”
1 p.m.: The meeting concludes, and I head out to bear the LA traffic again.
3 p.m.: I finally get back to my station. My assistant has my inbox full of paperwork, memos, signatures required, phone calls, etc. I start working through them.
6 p.m.: It’s time to head home. I still have work to do, but I grab what’s left to take with me and finish at home.
7 p.m.: Home at last. I get out of my uniform and sit down for a bite to eat. Finally, relaxation!
7:45 p.m.: Dispatch calls me about a working brush fire that’s gone to a second alarm. Uniform back on – code 3 back to the city. Listening to the radio traffic, I want to chime in, but the incident commander is doing a great job. Boy, I miss this part of the job – incidents and action! It is always rewarding when you see personnel promote up through the ranks and become proficient in their skills. Give them the opportunity, along with the training and support, and most of the time they will amaze you!
11 p.m.: Back at home and time for bed. Forward progress of the fire has stopped, containment lines increasing.
Friday: ‘I try to use Friday to catch up’
4:45 a.m.: I wake up and realize, “Finally, a Friday!” The weekend is here, and I have a concert in store for the evening. You know the morning drill by now.
7 a.m.: I pull into the station and get to my office. I try to use Friday to catch up. But like quicksand, the to-do list through the week gets longer and deeper. How will I catch up? No meetings on the agenda so I begin making my way through the pile. Fridays remind me of a plate of spaghetti. The work is like a whole bunch of long noodles. Where to begin is anyone’s guess. You just start chomping your way through it. It’s a lot to start digesting with hope you can take a lot off the plate by the end of the day.
5 p.m.: I head for home after a long work week.
7 p.m.: We make it to the concert on time!
10:30 p.m.: The show ends. It was great … I think? My girlfriend asks my opinion. I think about it for a minute and realize I was not truly present. I must have checked my cell phone 10 times to make sure everything was OK. After all, you never know when your city manager, council member, battalion chief or an irate citizen needs to talk to you.
11:30 p.m.: I finally make my way to bed and am asleep in no time.
Saturday: ‘Finally, my day to relax’
6 a.m.: Finally, my day to relax. Sleeping in is such a treat!
Normally I’d head down to the beach, get some breakfast, swing by Home Depot and do a grocery store run. Maybe the neighbors would like a barbeque today.
But WAIT! I can’t do any of those things. I need to attend the [fill in the blank with the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, Veterans Day event, emcee for a fire academy graduation, or the car show in town where I am asked to be a judge. You get the idea]. Maybe I’ll squeeze in some “me time” after the event.
Sunday: ‘Tick, tick, tick’
6 a.m.: Sunday has arrived. It feels good. Once again, sleeping in is such a treat!
9 a.m.: I attend church. My faith is a spiritual grounding force for me and my life. For me a good sermon provides a sense of “not sweating the small stuff.” It puts things in perspective, like attending a motivational seminar. You feel empowered at the end. The key is holding onto that feeling as long as possible before we get caught up in the details again.
11 a.m.: I come home and do some yard work. My mind is not shutting off – thinking about work and the upcoming week.
5:30 p.m.: After a long day, I finally put my feet up to relax. I catch my breath and let out a sigh when all of a sudden I hear “tick, tick, tick” of “60 Minutes” on the TV. Rinse and repeat!
‘To much is given, much is expected’
It can be extremely difficult to truly prepare for the role of fire chief, particularly because the position can be different depending on many factors. Regardless of the size of the agency, the stressors can feel equal. Big agencies have more command staff to delegate – a big responsibility. The smaller and medium agencies may seem less stressful; however, they have less command staff. This brings the need to wear many hats, as there are many expectations.
There are only 24 hours in a day. Most days are great, and others feel just short of a lonely defeat. Perhaps this high-level overview of what one chief's life looks like can help those not in a chief's position get a glimpse of or understand our world. Not all chiefs and their positions are created equal. Like you, we are human beings with doubts, fears, and challenges. I promise, the vast majority of every fire chief has your and every member of the organization's best interest at heart.
Again, I remind myself, “to much is given, much is expected!”