4 keys to effective fire service leadership

Focus on experience, knowledge, delegation and partnerships to drive fire department success


Who do you consider to be the most influential leaders who brought lasting change to the fire service? I’m sure several come to mind. For me, it’s Chiefs Alan Brunacini and Ron Coleman.

No matter who came to mind for you, I am sure they focused on four essential components of effective leadership: experience, knowledge, delegation and partnerships.

Let’s delve into each to examine why they are so critical to success for fire service leaders.

Being an effective leader is not an easy task, but focusing on experience, knowledge, delegation and partnerships will help you monitor and drive success for your department.
Being an effective leader is not an easy task, but focusing on experience, knowledge, delegation and partnerships will help you monitor and drive success for your department. (The Toledo Blade)

1. Experience defines our strengths and weaknesses

Experience – whether on the emergency scene or handling administrative, personnel, data and management issues – gives the leader their first set of references when tackling a new or complex issue. Probably without realizing it, we use the lens of our own experience as we make a size-up on the emergency scene and set our expectations as to the outcome given the factors we see, hear or smell.

As it is with administrative duties, we develop into leaders from being given opportunities to participate in committees or work groups that tackle issues like SOGs, sit on a promotional panel, or collect information on the top five community risk factors that are found in our response area.

Collectively, these tasks and opportunities define our strengths and weaknesses as leaders. For example, after 9/11, I participated in a study on the Continuity of Government – an opportunity that has helped me, even today, to assist in writing both an Emergency Operations and Continuity of Operations Plan for my department and jurisdiction. On the other hand, I have never undertaken the building of a new fire station, but I know those who have that experience to fall back on when needed.

2. Knowledge is a never-ending quest

Our knowledge is gained through both formal and informal education. Some believe that knowledge is only accomplished when we have attained initials behind our name, such as CFO, MPA or even Ph.D. But knowledge is a never-ending quest, and accomplished when we not only apply what we know, but also help others acquire the same knowledge.

I am a strong believer that the fire service is a profession. After all, a profession is defined as an area of expertise that has a defined body of knowledge that requires advanced education and/or training; high ethical standards, such as those defined by our IAFC code of conduct; and an expanding body of knowledge. All of us, at every level, are professionals.

The fire and EMS Profession includes the art, science, engineering and technology of our profession. We may not be proficient in every aspect, but take advantage of the growing body of knowledge, including the work underway by organizations such as the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), the NFPA and the Battelle Institute.

3. Delegation grows skill sets and confidence

Delegation is critical, as no fire chief or officer can handle all the tasks required of them in today’s fast-paced world. Delegation means empowering an individual to act or represent another with the authority granted them to act on behalf of their leader.

Delegation is two-fold: It allows the effective leader, in our case a chief, to handle more issues simultaneously; conversely, it gives a new level of experience to the trusted subordinate. There have been countless times during my career when a chief delegated me the authority and opportunity to represent them. Such delegation increased my knowledge and experience while also growing my confidence, especially in challenging circumstances.

Not all of these experiences end in success, glory or triumph. The key is that each opportunity increases the skill and proficiency of the delegate, and perhaps defines the level of direct involvement needed by the leader. It should be noted that in the case of both the leader and delegate, the success or failure is still the responsibility of the leader and not that of their designated representative. If things are going badly, the senior officer needs to intercede to at least offer advice to their delegate.

It’s also important for leaders to give the delegate clear guidelines on their limitations. Here’s an example of how clear guidelines worked for me. When asked to represent my chief and our department during some difficult negotiations on automatic aid, I was counseled by the chief not to negotiate “below the water-line.” He advised me to not agree to anything that we couldn’t live up to, or what might adversely affect our ability to maintain an adequate response for a simultaneous call in our own area. My chief knew the other players very well. Their initial tactic was flattery, then asks for far more help than they could or would reciprocate to us. Following my chief’s guidelines, we settled on our aid being the same response that they were willing to provide us during similar emergencies.

4. Partnerships increase capacity and value

Few fire departments can operate successfully without strategic partnerships. This could include a solid working relationship with the police, public works or maintenance departments within your jurisdiction, or a strategic partner outside of local government, such as your local hospital, addiction counseling service, Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross or faith-based organizations.

In my recent article “Custodian or leader? Navigating the role of new chief,” I noted that in order to be successful with any change, fire service leaders must evaluate capacity, value and authority. Strategic partnerships can increase both your capacity (the resources, such as people, money, equipment and facilities, that allow a fire department or any agency to do something) and the value (the worth or benefit to the public and/or your personnel that comes from an agency performing a service).

Indirectly, strategic partnerships may also enhance the prestige of the fire department and, more indirectly, that of its leader.

Evaluate and push for success

Being an effective leader is not an easy task, but focusing on experience, knowledge, delegation and partnerships will help you monitor and drive success for your department. Take a moment to evaluate each of these in conjunction with your leadership style, and see how they might enhance your effectiveness.

Stay safe!

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