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The ‘outside chief’: 5 factors to consider before taking the top job in a new area

It’s essential to do your homework, understand the politics and find the right fit for you


It’s important to realize that the challenges for an “outside chief” will likely be different than a new chief who came up from inside the department.

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Achieving the rank of fire chief is a milestone accomplishment in a firefighter’s career.

Some new chiefs worked long and hard in their career to advance up the ranks within a single department where they are a “known commodity.” Other new chiefs advance through the ranks at a different department – or multiple departments – and come into the top spot from the outside. And of course, there are also those chiefs who have held the top spot at more than one department, so they might be coming in from the outside but are not new to the chief position.

It’s important to realize that the challenges for an “outside chief” will likely be different than a new chief who came up from inside the department. Being away from your family, displacing and relocating your family, different cultures and values, lack of trust, and internal member resentment are all real challenges an outside chief may encounter. Over time, most of these will self-correct, and the outside chief can become successful in their endeavors. But there are those situations where issues cannot be overcome, leading to an early end of the outside chief’s administration.

Twice the “outside chief”

I have had the opportunity to twice serve as chief of the department. Both times, I was an outside chief. My first time serving as chief was at a department in Metro Atlanta, Georgia, in the same county where I grew up and my career began. My second time serving as chief was in western Wisconsin. In between those two tenures as a fire chief, I worked in Washington, D.C., and Orange Beach, Alabama, both in leadership positions.

I worked hard to be a successful outside chief. I was never afraid to face the challenges, known and unknown, and approach them with an open mind. I was successful, and I made mistakes. There are things I should have done better and avoided. It’s a humbling experience to look in the mirror and ask, “what if?”

From my experiences, plus insights from some close friends who went through the experiences with me, I offer a few nuggets of wisdom that may help the future outside chief.

1. Do your homework

This can’t be overstated enough. There are many fire chief positions posted on trade websites where you can apply on the spot. Some are in locations that sound enticing, some not so much, and some you may have never heard of.

Why is the position open? Regardless of the location, you must do your homework, specifically related to the question, “Why is the position open?” The previous chief may have retired, moved on to a bigger or better position, or did so for personal reasons unrelated to the position. On the other hand, it could be that the previous chief was forced out or a situation where the environment was less than conducive for success, so they chose to leave or even a combination of both. Either way, as a candidate, do the homework of why is the position open and what circumstances led to it, as it may provide insights into the department that would be useful for you as you determine if you want to apply.

If possible, talk with the previous chief, but always proceed with caution, as their input could be biased. Keep an open mind based on the information you gather, particularly in the context of the experience and talent you bring to the position.

Evaluate the work ethic culture at the department: Work ethic varies from department to department or region to region. In the Midwest, individuals may work longer hours, rooted in an area’s farming background. In the Northeast or larger urban areas, there might be a more stressful or faster-paced schedule. In the South, life may be more laid back and casual, while out West, things may be more policy-driven, which does effect outcomes. While this is just a broad example and in no way applies to every department, you’ll want to consider how the department culture compares to what you are accustomed to at your current department.

Learn about the community: Relocating across town is vastly different than across the country. Your favorite team may not be their favorite team. Your accent may not be their accent. Your values and beliefs may not be their values and beliefs. You may fit in, but does your family? These are all serious factors, and often the little things mean much more.

Conduct interviews: As a candidate for the fire chief’s position, you are likely to participate in a variety of interviews. These may include elected officials, appointed boards and committees, city managers or administrators, and even a panel of members/firefighters from the department. You will field questions about leadership, your background/experience and situational scenarios. Be prepared for all questions.

Whether you do it during the interview, or on a later date, you should ask your own questions. While they are considering you for the position, you are also considering whether this is a fit for you. Conduct your own interview of sorts to see if the department meets your standards.

I recommend having a few questions identified in advance, but also look for clues within the interview process that could direct you to important questions of your own.

For example, you most likely will receive questions related to your leadership style. However, if you receive more targeted questions related to how you lead in a hostile environment or how you lead individuals who are unmotivated, these are flags that should prompt you to dig a little deeper into what has been occurring at the department.

You may also receive questions about your past experiences with labor unions. If you receive questions about how you would address specific disciplinary issues, pay inequalities or poor labor-management relations, this should also prompt you to do a little extra homework.

Depending on the type of department you are interviewing for, there may be questions about managing full-time, paid-on-call, part-time, volunteers, or any combination thereof. However, questions that venture into restoring or creating harmony and balance between department members generally signal that there is something going on that you should further explore. If you are interviewing for a department that is combination, ask if you can speak with individuals from both sides to understand the different points of view.

You will likely have an opportunity to ask some of these questions during your interview, and you may get the answers you need to gauge your potential success. Many chief candidates are often so focused on providing sufficient answers that they miss the opportunity to follow up with the interviewer. If that is the case, reflect on the questions or even write them down during the interview. It should become a blueprint for getting the answers you will need – at a later time – to make an informed decision on whether you may or may not be successful in the position.

Know the expectations: When you participate in interviews and conduct follow-ups, ensure that the expectations from the organization and members meet your understanding, and they are mutually agreed upon.

Some examples: If your expectation is to improve community relations, if member retention is an issue, do they have specific goals outlined? And what is their acceptance to new initiatives based on past practices? If improved labor-management relationships are desired, what are the boundaries of interaction and what is the framework for that to happen – or are they looking to you to build the framework? If you are asked to provide a better level of service, or be more professional, what does that really mean to them in practice? How far are they willing to push the envelope?

The last thing you want is to accept a position with ambiguous directions.

2. Understand the politics

As an outside chief candidate, always check the political landscape. In some states, the police and fire chiefs work directly for the top elected official, while others report to a city manager or administrator. Unfortunately, there are also scenarios where the police and fire chiefs are caught in an ambiguous situation of reporting to both. This is not an easy scenario in trying to please two bosses, as both have different views, objectives and agendas.

Identify if elected officials have, or had, direct access to department members? Do they go to the floor to get answers or do they go to the fire chief? How elected officials gather information, make decisions and form opinions is critical in assessing if the new outside chief will be successful.

Try to evaluate what will happen if the political landscape changes. The incoming elected official/manager/administrator may not support you in the same manner as their predecessor. This is typically unpredictable or unknowable, but if they are incumbents somewhere in the organization, you might have access to some insight.

You may be the perfect fit for the department and the members at the time, but one elected official or administrator that is not on your side, or have the same plan, can disrupt your mission and end your administration. This doesn’t mean you’re not right for the position, it just means you’re not right for that new boss. Having a contingency plan.

3. Remember, if it’s too good to be true …

We all know the phrase, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Be cautious of positions that seem too good to be true. I have seen fire chief positions that I thought to myself, “that’s the place I’d love to be the chief!” But a few months later, the same position is open again, and a few months later, it’s open again. There must be something that makes it too good to be true.

Be cautious of positions where the organization is too eager to bring you on board. If the recruitment and interview process is short and an immediate offer comes in, as enticing as it may be, take a breath and do the homework. If the process is long, but then the demand for a quick answer is presented, or takes unusually long, again, take a breath, and do the homework.

If you are the final candidate and offered the position, but then are required to travel to participate in additional interviews and processes at your own expense, or things seem unplanned and uncoordinated, again, take a breath and do the homework.

Despite how exciting – and flattering – it may feel, always keep an eye out for signs to help you make the most informed decision.

4. Don’t dismiss others because of your own certification

As an outside candidate, you should understand the dynamics of the organization to which you are applying. During your evaluation process, consider your own exposure, certifications, credentials and experience compared to that of the members of the department. For example, attending and presenting at national, state and/or local conferences, as well as attending the National Fire Academy (NFA), being an Executive Fire Officer graduate, possessing Chief Fire Officer designation or any higher education degrees, may mean little to the members of the department, even if it is in the job description or desired qualifications. It’s important to remember that your background may be intimidating to others – or could be dismissed. Know that in some cases, members in smaller departments may have never had the opportunity to attend such events.

Coming from the outside with a wealth of exposure, experience and certifications may not mean anything to those you are being hired to lead. Thus, your expectations of others may need to be adjusted. It’s important to know that going into the position, so you don’t find yourself outrunning those you are trying to lead, with nobody following because they can’t keep up, don’t know how to do, or simply don’t want to follow.

5. Accept that it might not be a good fit

Let’s face it, it’s not always going to be a fit. Regardless of how much time and energy you invest in gathering background information and making an informed decision to accept the position, it is inevitable that sometimes you will be surprised or even disappointed in what you learn or the results that follow.

If that happens, consider it to be a growth and learning experience, and move on. Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole, feeling like you have to accept a position that you realize isn’t right for you. Similarly, if the department selects a different candidate, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a fit for a chief position somewhere; it just means that wasn’t the spot for you. Should you decide to try again elsewhere, be open and honest about it. It may help you, and the future employer, determine whether you are a good fit.

Final thought

Never accept a fire chief position without doing your homework and considering the factors that matter most to you and your family. It’s essential to find the right fit so that you can be a successful leader and help a department grow. Just know that every opportunity presents challenges, and those challenges can create growth for you as a leader. Identify the opportunity where you can apply your skills and talents to enable growth to occur for everyone involved.

Be safe!

Editor’s note: Were you an “outside chief”? What lessons did you learn in the transition to a new department? Share in the comments below.

Billy D. Hayes retired as fire chief for the City of Onalaska, Wisconsin, in 2020. He previously served as the fire marshal for the University of South Alabama, vice president of university relations for Columbia Southern University, the director of community affairs for the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department, and as the fire chief and emergency management coordinator for the City of Riverdale, Georgia. He is a graduate of Georgia Military College and Columbia Southern University, the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and has a certificate in local government management from the University of Georgia. Hayes is a past president of the Metro Atlanta Fire Chiefs Association and past chairman of the board for the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation. He authored the Public Fire and Life Safety Education chapter of “The Fire Chief’s Handbook” (7th Edition). Hayes is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Hayes on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.