Congratulations, you’ve been promoted to fire chief! Now what?

Seven tips for newly promoted chiefs looking to be successful in their new role

For more on this topic, check out the IAFC’s recently-released guide "You're the Fire Chief; Now What? Guidance for New and Interim Fire Chiefs." And, listen to this special iCHIEFS podcast, "The 100 Day Plan: Succeeding as a new Fire Chief," as Fire Chiefs John Butler, Fairfax County (Virginia) and Al Yancey, Jr., Minooka (Illinois) Fire Protection District share their personal experiences and resources available to help for new chiefs successfully navigate the first 100 days.

You thrived for the five – five bugles that it is. And you finally got them!

Maybe you’ve always aspired to be a fire chief or maybe your career path took you to the top position in the fire department without you even trying. Regardless of how you became the fire chief, you’re now the leader of an organization whose primary function is service to the community – and you must keep your firefighters safe in the process. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Not so fast!

Lessons learned from moving into the top spot

Gary Ludwig is sworn into the role of fire chief for the city of Champaign, Illinois.
Gary Ludwig is sworn into the role of fire chief for the city of Champaign, Illinois.

After 35 years of working in two big city departments, I thought I was prepared. Big city departments see their share of action, politics, personnel issues, budget problems, media inquiries and host of other issues that I thought provided an excellent training ground for me to become a fire chief. Serving on the command staffs of multiple fire chiefs, there was no doubt I had a front-row seat to almost any issue a fire chief could face, whether it be in the office or at some scene. Boy was I wrong! There was still a lot more to learn! Following are seven tips I learned going through the process myself.

1. Accept the responsibility of the fire chief role: Although I already knew it, it was now a reality: All responsibility, no matter what happened, fell on my shoulders. If you’re a deputy chief, assistant chief or battalion chief, something may go wrong, but you could always fall back and kick it up to the next level if it was beyond your scope. There is nowhere to fall back or next level when you are the fire chief. There may be a city manager, a mayor or a board of directors that you report to, but kicking a problem to their office is not real leadership. They hired you to lead and manage the fire department, and they expect you to deal with the problems and devise solutions. If I always kicked my problems to my city manager, she would probably begin to wonder why she hired me.

2. Make meaningful change based on priorities: As the new fire chief, you should not be a mere seat-warmer, someone who just occupies a title. There are certain things you should accomplish that will determine your success. To be successful, you need to establish priorities.

When I stepped into my role as a new fire chief, I was hired from the outside and had no knowledge of the department other than doing newspaper and Google research. I tried to meet as many firefighters and employees as a I could. I talked to stakeholders who interfaced with the fire department, including the local ambulance services, hospitals, other city departments and the University of Illinois, whose main campus sits in Champaign.

During my discussions with the firefighters, there was one question I asked to all of them: If you had a chance to fix or change something, what would it be? The answers really did not range all over the place. Yes, there were some outliers, but those were mainly a change that would benefit that specific firefighter. I was not interested in hearing what was best for a single firefighter; I wanted to hear common themes that would impact the entire department and make it better. I wanted to hear the “needs” versus “wants.”

In the case of my department, I heard many answers but there were three common denominators:

  1. Change the training program
  2. Change the fleet maintenance program
  3. Deal with staffing issues

By engaging in conversations with firefighters of my new department, I began to understand the root issues affecting the department and where my efforts and priorities should be based.           

3. Listen with purpose: I had to learn to listen intently and with purpose. I had to understand that I was now on the bottom of the organizational chart. My firefighters were not there to serve me, I was there to serve them. My job was to make sure they had all the training, resources, equipment and anything else they needed to do the job while remaining safe.

4. Establish trust: One way of establishing trust is never to lie or be untruthful with your firefighters. As painful as an answer may be to give, lying to your firefighter will ruin your credibility, which in turn will make you ineffective when it comes to the other things you may want to do.           

5. Develop a plan: I’ve heard some advocate that as a new fire chief, you should have a 30-, 60- and a 90-day plan. My first 30 days ranged from finding my way to work to figuring out how my email and phone worked. If you’re in your first 30 days, unless there is a major crisis to deal with, it is best to sit back, learn and ask lot of questions.           

6. Avoid jumping straight into cultural change: One way I’ve seen other fire chiefs fail when they come in from the outside is by trying to change the culture of the department. They fall flat on their face. I was determined I was not going to do this.

I saw one new fire chief who tried to change the name of the department, which meant every firefighter changing the names on T-shirts, names on the back of turnout coats, apparatus and anything else that had the old department name on it. In one single move, he tried to change the culture of the department, all so that the name was more reflective of the department’s mission. His intentions were good but just done in the wrong way at the wrong time. The rest of his tenure as fire chief was very acrimonious, and he did not get much done.

7. Don’t insult your new department: I saw another new fire chief make a major gaffe during his first newspaper and TV interview by saying that he “wanted to make his new department great.” Of course, his firefighters became angry with this statement and the union president responded by saying, “We think we’re great already?” This fire chief’s tenure with the department did not bode well.

Key takeaways for successful new chiefs

The most successful fire chiefs I have had the opportunity to observe are those who truly put the department, their firefighters and employees, and service to the community before themselves. They understand that the department that they lead, and its success, will always supersede their needs and ego. They are humbled and honored by the responsibility they have been given and understand the importance of the role they play in the community. As Rick Warren, the author of “The Purpose Drive Life” says, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

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