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5 key insights city managers seek from their fire chiefs

Transparent communication between city managers and fire chiefs is essential for building a strong partnership and ensuring the city’s overall wellbeing


Fire chiefs must be ready to explain the department’s stance on five key fronts to city managers.

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By William (Bill) Sturgeon, MPA

Many fire officers don’t give much thought to the role of the city manager, that is, until they become fire chief. City and county managers, who oversee the overall administration of a city, rely on their fire chief for valuable insights and information regarding public safety.

Here are five key areas that city managers often seek to understand from their fire chiefs – areas that fire chiefs must be ready to explain.

1. Operational efficiency

City and county managers want to know how efficiently and effectively a fire department operates. They seek information on response times, resource allocation and incident management. Fire chiefs provide data on response times, including both emergency and non-emergency calls, and explain any factors that may impact these times. They can also share strategies for optimizing resource allocation, such as the placement of fire stations and equipment, to ensure effective coverage across the city or county.

One of the best practices to demonstrate operational effectiveness is to develop Standards of Cover (SOC). A fire department’s Standards of Cover (SOC) document is defined by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI) as the “adopted written policies and procedures that determine the distribution, concentration and reliability of fixed and mobile response forces for fire, emergency medical services, hazardous materials and other technical types of responses.”

For the elected body and administrators to have confidence that their fire department is meeting the needs of the community, a complete assessment of the risks in the community must be honestly undertaken. Only after the application of a proven risk assessment model can a fire department develop an SOC performance contract. Examples of risk that can be evaluated include population density, square footage of commercial building stock, types of occupancies, community demand, protection systems, and age of building stock, to name a few. Risks can be quantified by applying a proven risk scoring methodology and can be broken down into a simple classification system such as maximum, high, moderate or low risk categories.

Additionally, response times (distribution) and effective response force (concentration) variables should be analyzed and adjusted based on community risks. Further analysis into response is crucial to determine the reliability of first due stations to cover their first due response area and the appropriate Unit Hour Utilization (UHU) of deployed units.

It is important that decision-makers provide educated calculations on expected risk, what resources are available to respond, and what outcomes can be expected. It is a best practice for communities to set response standards based on the identified risks within their specific jurisdictions. Fire chiefs should develop a valid risk assessment model to apply their community and then educate community leaders on community needs. The application of a proven risk assessment model allows the city/county manager, fire chief and elected officials to make educated decisions concerning the level of service desired for the community. It is recommended fire chiefs quantify the effectiveness of the fire department by adopting a system of measures. Examples include call processing times, turn out times, travel times, water on the fire, fire contained to the room of origin, first shock, return of spontaneous circulation and other community specific performance measurements.


Fire chiefs should develop a valid risk assessment model to apply their community and then educate community leaders on community needs. The application of a proven risk assessment model allows the city/county manager, fire chief and elected officials to make educated decisions concerning the level of service desired for the community.

Photo/William (Bill) Sturgeon

2. Budget and resource management

Most city and county managers are responsible for overseeing the city’s budget and rely on the fire chief to provide insights into the fire department’s financial needs. Fire chiefs should consistently communicate their budget requirements, including personnel, equipment, training and maintenance costs. They should also highlight any potential cost-saving measures or opportunities for efficiency improvements. By understanding the fire department’s resource needs, city and county managers can make informed decisions regarding budget allocations.

Several recommendations include having a vehicle and equipment replacement schedule, a master plan and a strategic plan (SP).

  • Fire chiefs can reference NFPA standards for recommendations on vehicle service life and replacement in order to develop a forward-thinking plan.
  • A department master plan is a tool used to forecast future needs of the department and is usually developed in collaboration with the planning department, finance department, procurement department and the manager’s office. It is another best practice for fire departments to have a 3–5-year strategic plan.
  • A strategic plan is a prioritized list based of identified Areas of Focus (AOF), serving as a roadmap for goals, objectives and tasks needing to be accomplished over a given period. A nimble and flexible SP will help navigate unpredictable economic, financial and leadership changes.

3. Training and professional development

City and county managers are interested in the professional development of fire department personnel to ensure that firefighters receive adequate training. Fire chiefs should provide information on training programs, certifications and ongoing professional development initiatives. They should also present strategies for promoting a culture of continuous learning and improvement within the department.

Fire chiefs can strive to provide cost-effective training. This could be accomplished by developing agreements with surrounding agencies or forming consortiums for the utilization of training facilities, equipment and personnel.

Another idea is to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of having their own training facility. Many jurisdictions have a dedicated training facility – an approach that has monetary and non-monetary benefits, such as keeping units in the city/county (available to respond) while they are training. Another benefit is the flexibility of scheduling training time at the departments own facility versus having to compete for time at off-site training facilities.

4. Community engagement and education

City and county managers also recognize the importance community risk reduction (CRR) and engagement. Fire chiefs are expected to inform city managers about the department’s efforts in these areas. They should share details about community outreach programs, fire safety campaigns, and initiatives aimed at reducing community risks.

Fire chiefs can provide insights into partnerships with schools, businesses and community organizations to enhance prevention and safety awareness. It is a best practice for fire chiefs to gather, mine and analyze data to identify areas where targeted risk reduction and outreach programs should take place. Once target areas are identified, then programs can be developed, implemented and assessed for effectiveness at reducing risks in the community.

5. Future planning and preparedness

City and county managers rely on fire chiefs to assess potential risks and develop plans for future emergencies. Fire chiefs should be prepared to provide information on the department’s emergency preparedness strategies, including disaster response plans, mutual-aid agreements and coordination with other emergency services.

They should also discuss long-term goals and initiatives to enhance the fire department’s capabilities, such as acquiring new equipment or implementing new technologies. Again, a completed community all-hazards risk assessment should be accomplished by examining and rating all risks in the community. Specific response and recovery plans can then be developed and exercised prior to an incident occurring.

Cities and counties must be well-versed in the incident command system and familiar with the areas Civil Emergency Management Plan (CEMP). It is highly recommended that exercises and after-action reviews (AAR) are conducted after real or simulated emergencies. AARs are invaluable at finding gaps in response and recovery plans. Lessons learned during the AAR process must be shared and acted upon to ensure continuous improvement.

Final thoughts

The relationship between city/county managers and fire chiefs is crucial for effective city governance and public safety. By understanding the aforementioned five key areas, city/county managers can make informed decisions, allocate resources effectively and support the fire department in its mission to protect the community. Open and transparent communication between city managers and fire chiefs is essential for building a strong partnership and ensuring the city’s overall wellbeing.

About the author

William (Bill) Sturgeon, MPA, CPM, EFO, EMT-P, ICMA-CM, is a senior associate with Fitch & Associates and a retired fire chief and city manager.

For more than three decades, the Fitch & Associates team of consultants has provided customized solutions to the complex challenges faced by public safety organizations of all types and sizes. From system design and competitive procurements to technology upgrades and comprehensive consulting services, Fitch & Associates helps communities ensure their emergency services are both effective and sustainable. For ideas to help your agency improve performance in the face of rising costs, call 888-431-2600 or visit