What it takes to be Fire Chief of the Year
Here’s a look at what two past award winners did to set themselves apart from the crowd, how you can become a future Fire Chief of the Year and what they’ve been doing since they won their award
Leadership, integrity and innovation.
These three characteristics, among many others, are what fire chiefs should always strive to attain. And for former Fire Chief Debra Amesqua and Fire Chief Randy Bruegman, it helped set them apart from their colleagues when they won their International Association of Fire Chiefs Fire Chief of the Year award.
I interviewed Chiefs Amesqua and Bruegman and asked what they have been doing since they won the award, their crowning achievement that put them ahead of other nominees and advice on what it takes to be a Fire Chief of the Year winner.
And if you haven’t already, the deadline to nominate a chief for this year’s award is June 5. Learn more about how to nominate a chief here. Past Fire Chief of the Year award winners can also be viewed here.
Meet the Chiefs
Former Fire Chief Debra Amesqua won the Fire Chief of the Year award in 2011 while working with the Madison (Wis.) Fire Department. Amesqua said her tenacity and love for people set her apart from other nominees.
Fire Chief Randy Bruegman won the Fire Chief of the Year award in 2009 while working with the Fresno (Calif.) Fire Department. After receiving the award, Bruegman paid it forward by helping shape future fire service leaders.
When did you win the award and where were you chief at the time?
Amesqua: It was in 2011 and I was a fire chief in in Madison, Wis. I grew up in Tallahassee (Fla.) and became a firefighter with the Tallahassee Fire Department in 1983. I later took the fire chief position in Madison, and it was an amazing move. I love the community in Madison; I was there for 16 years. It was an extraordinary time for the department and for me.
Bruegman: I was in Fresno, Calif. and it was in 2009. I was in Fresno from 2003-2010. I started in Colorado and rose up through the ranks and I took my first chief job in Campbell, Calif. and was there for one year. I was brought in to lead a consolidation effort and worked myself out of a job. I then went to Illinois for four years and later to Clackamas County (Ore.) to run that fire district, then to Fresno. Five years ago I got a call from the Anaheim (Calif.) Fire Department. I’ve been here ever since.
What put you ahead of the other nominees?
Amesqua: I think I’m most known for my tenacity. We had the vote of ‘no confidence’ in 1998. I was there in 1996 and I remember when the union president came into my office and I said, ‘In two years you won’t like me.’ And sure enough, he had orchestrated a vote of ‘no confidence’ and it was quite a traumatic time for everyone. I expected that to happen, not necessarily the vote of no confidence, but certainly there had to be a huge transition for the department. But it was probably one of the best things that ever happened. The union was very good about putting their concerns in writing. That became a roadmap for me to be able to accomplish things I knew they wanted and that the council was behind it. You do have to expect that sort of thing in the fire service, though. You’re going to be challenged and you have to know where you’re going when you walk in the door.
Bruegman: That’s a tough one. I’ve been very blessed in my career. I’ve had a lot of help to be able to do many of the things that I’ve been able to accomplish like sitting as an IAFC president to being part of the accreditation process. Maybe it was longevity.
What have you been doing since you won the award?
Amesqua: I retired in 2012 and moved back to take care of my at the time 84-year-old mother and she passed away right before Christmas this past year. So I had three good years of getting to feel like we had all of our issues resolved between us and we experienced unconditional love. That was an important time for me and for my mom. Also during that time, I started building mandolins. I was looking for something to do once I retired. I was a music major at Florida State University so music has always been a part of my way of reliving stress. I decided to return to the arts and take all of the skills that I have in management and apply them to the art community. It’s great meeting new people, hanging out at the festivals and building the instruments full-time. I have made seven instruments up until this point.
Bruegman: As you move through the ranks, you really focus on honing your skills and you’re always looking for ways to move to the next step. At some point, you get a little more comfortable with your leadership ability and your intuitive ability to make good decisions. I shifted from being more focused on other people than what my next steps would be. After I was selected, I had the responsibility to pay it forward. Others were looking to me as a role model. So I started mentoring others like I had been mentored and opened doors for others like what was done for me. I had more of a sense of ownership and started focusing on how to help our future fire service leaders.
What’s the funniest or most profound memory you have of winning?
Amesqua: I was humbled by the letters that were sent in to support my candidacy. They were people that I had been working with the 15 years prior to winning the award. They knew me backwards and forwards and they said some incredibly beautiful things. I was truly honored and humbled to read that material and feel like I had accomplished something that someone noticed. It was nice to share it with my family. My mom also came to the celebration so that was a very special time for her and my family. It’s the pinnacle of anyone’s career to be honored by the people you work with.
Bruegman: The most profound moment was when I got the call. I was speechless when I found out I was selected. I knew the people before me that were selected and to be in that group of individuals was very special. Also, at the conference when I received the award, I walked off the stage and my oldest son tapped me on the shoulder. He lives in New York City and I had no idea that he was going to show up. It was a great surprise.
What does it take to be Chief of the Year material?
Amesqua: You have to know who you are as an individual. You’re going to be challenged on your values and you have better have those clear in your mind. It’s important that you understand who you are as an individual and that you’re able to put your position on the line. You also have to have a really good sense of humor. If you can’t laugh at yourself and laugh at some situations, you’re in the wrong business. This is a people-oriented business and you have to have a good sense of humor.
Bruegman: With the people I competed with, it takes a lot of luck. You could have put every single person up for the award on a board, thrown a dart, and you’d always end up with a really great fire chief. I consider myself very lucky and blessed.
What’s the single most important characteristic a fire chief should have?
Amesqua: You have to be able to visualize what does not exist today and manage from that perspective. You also have to be clear about how you get to where you’re going. Another important quality is to be able to love people unconditionally. It is my true and honest belief that everyone tries to do the best job they can. You’re going to make mistakes. For a person to be able to really care and love someone else, no matter what they do, it’s an extraordinary quality. I really feel like that has set me apart. For people that are in those types of positions, that will set them apart from anyone else.
Bruegman: I had been exposed early to excellence in the fire service and I’ve had doors open to me that afforded me the ability to gain that exposure. I learned things that some fire chiefs aren’t typically exposed to in their day-to-day job. You have to remember to continually strive to be better as a fire chief, constantly trying to learn something new and to have the mentality of paying it forward and being a good mentor.
If you would like to nominate someone for Fire Chief of the Year, follow the directions here.