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Custodian or leader? Navigating the role of new chief

Go beyond checking boxes and work to advance the department’s mission and vision


Gone should be the days when a chief is appointed because “it’s their turn.” Those chiefs tend to be the “custodians” whose attitude alone generally means they are counting the days until retirement and will keep the department at status quo, without taking steps to advance the department.

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If being a fire chief appeals to you, then it’s important that you carefully consider several aspects of the position.

Many of us have been blessed with knowing or working with great chiefs. Most are lifelong advocates of the fire service as a profession and have taken the time to prepare themselves through education, training and experience. They are also students of human nature. Many knew they had a finite amount of time to be a positive influence on their department and made the most of every moment. They are the examples we should emulate.

Gone should be the days when a chief is appointed because “it’s their turn.” Those chiefs tend to be the “custodians” whose attitude alone generally means they are counting the days until retirement and will keep the department at status quo, without taking steps to advance the department.

So how do you prepare to be a chief who will go beyond the custodian role to serve as a true leader, a positive influence moving your department forward?

Preparation through education, training and networking

There is no doubt that becoming a chief should require a good deal of preparation. At some departments, this will necessitate a combination of things, including a formal education, meaning a bachelor’s or master’s degree, perhaps in executive leadership or public administration, plus completion of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program or an equivalent, such as the Naval Post Graduate School.

Enhanced training through classes focused on advanced incident management or data collection and analysis would augment your executive skills. Several are offered at the local or state levels through FEMA, at your local community college, an online program, even the FireRescue1 Academy.

Networking at all levels of the fire service can give you a different perspective on everything from operations to community risk reduction. Adapting a successful program from one of these networking opportunities – whether for issues like recruitment, diversity, or firefighter health and safety – is well worth the investment of your time.

Networking also includes establishing relationships within your community – with the Chamber of Commerce, Habitat for Humanity, neighborhood-improvement associations, and charitable and faith-based organizations. Each can give insight into the special needs of your community (e.g., your seniors, the infirmed, those with addictions or non-English-speaking residents). Building strategic partnerships with civic groups may provide your department with greater access to your hard-to-reach populations so you can share the department’s safety and prevention messages. A chief’s involvement helps assure these groups that your intentions are out of genuine concern for them.

Accountability: Effective vs. efficient

Becoming a fire chief increases your accountability to your community, to your superiors (e.g. the city manager, administrator and city council members), and to your fire department personnel. Each of these entities may see your role differently.

The community is looking to you to provide a safe environment for them to live, work and play. They also expect you to provide the highly skilled and effective fire, emergency medical and rescue personnel who will quickly resolve their every problem in a professional manner. By contrast, the city manager, administrator or council may want you to provide these same services in a most efficient manner. “Wait”, you say, “Isn’t that the same thing?” Let’s see what Webster’s Dictionary says:

  • Effective: “Producing a definite or desired result”
  • Efficient: Similar but adds the element of “with a minimum of effort, expense or waste”

Put another way, efficiency might be arriving at the scene of an emergency in under four minutes 90% of the time in, but that might be with a crew of two, while effectiveness means you might arrive in under six minutes with a crew of four that can safely start operations (two-in/two-out) while knowing the bulk of the cavalry will arrive shortly. You can imagine which of these options your fire and EMS personnel would prefer since they hold you accountable for their health and safety.

Effectiveness vs. efficiency: It will come up for discussion. I once had a city manager who quipped that for what it cost him to run the fire department, he could pay for every fire loss our city had annually. I reminded him that the reason we had such a low fire loss was due to the effectiveness of “his” fire department and personnel. He smiled and we never had that discussion again.

Change = Capacity, value and authority

Whether you’ve been with one department for your entire career and become a chief officer or have been hired from the outside, there is probably some degree of change that either you, your boss or both wish to make in the department.

In order for there to be change, especially change that is accepted by both the citizens and your department personnel, there needs to be three elements that align, namely capacity, value and authority. Here are my simplified definitions of each of these factors:

  1. Capacity: The resources, such as people, money, equipment and facilities, that allow a fire department or any agency to do something.
  2. Value: The worth or benefit to the public and/or your personnel that comes from an agency performing a service.
  3. Authority: The popular and/or political support that allows an agency the power to do something.

These three factors are dynamic in that they are constantly in motion. A change either good or bad in any of these factors will affect what, how or whether an agency can carry out a service. Similarly, if a chief is looking to change the department, they must have the capacity, value and authority to make the change if it’s to be successful.

Here is an example from my experience. I was hired into a municipal fire department as chief in order to consolidate that department with a separate municipally funded paramedic service. At first glance, it seemed like a no-brainer, but I knew it was not going to be easy. Why? Because I was the fourth person hired as fire chief in the previous three years. The others, for a variety of reasons, couldn’t make it happen and left. Making it worse, both services shared the same building, but each had a separate entrance, set of officers, and an invisible line drawn that separated their bays and the living quarters.

Understanding the theory of Capacity, Value and Authority, I asked the city manager that I be named by city council both fire chief and director of EMS, a new title that had not been conveyed in the past. This took care of my authority. The capacity – personnel, equipment and funding – were there, but without any real buy-in. Value, however, was a key issue. Both the fire department and EMS had their own citizen and councilmember supporters, but there was also a third faction that wanted to be rid of both and contract outside for fire and EMS.

Internally, I met separately with both the firefighter and paramedic groups. I told each group that they would not have to crossover. That is, the current personnel who were medics could remain medics only. Firefighters, who were also EMTs, didn’t have to become paramedics. But any current member of either organization wanting to be both a firefighter and a paramedic could cross train at no expense. Future hires would be trained as both. That handled the value part of the change equation, and the agencies were combined to become the Department of Fire and EMS.

As a final point for unification, the color schemes on the apparatus of both former agencies were changed to a whole new look, signifying to the citizens and our personnel as well that there were no longer two, but one unified department.

Two concluding thoughts

With any change, the leadership shown by the chief must include being sensitive as to how the change will affect their personnel. Major changes require that the chief acknowledges how the change may be difficult, but also how the change moves the department forward, delivering a better product for the citizens who they serve. What can make it easier might be the words of the old adage, “Firefighters don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

As for being a chief, we should constantly remind ourselves that true leadership doesn’t come with our title; it is measured more in our degree of influence.

Stay safe!

Editor’s note: What advice do you have for new chiefs? Share in the comments below.

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.