Trending Topics

The ‘outside chief’: 4 more factors to consider before taking the top job in a new area

Part 2 – Ask key questions about training and certifications, mutual aid, relationship-building and your own family


When considering the outside position, take a look in the mirror, think about your own personality and how it aligns with the culture of the members whom you may be charged to lead, serve and work with.

Photo/Getty Images

Editor’s note: What tips do you have for fire chiefs considering an opportunity in a new area? Share in the comments below.

Years ago, there was a TV infomercial host named Billy Mays, who sold a variety of products. His famous selling line was, “But wait, there’s more!” Mays died in 2009, but his legend continues, as still to this day, there are times when I introduce myself and I get questions like, “Aren’t you that guy on TV?” or even better, “I thought you died?”

It seems fitting now to say it myself.

My last article “The ‘outside chief’: 5 factors to consider before taking the top job in a new area” covered a lot of ground for chief officers in this situation – but wait, there’s more!

Since the first article was first published, I have received great feedback from friends and colleagues, which I’ve used to generate this follow-up piece with additional tips.

As a reminder, the five factors outlined in the first article include the following:

  1. Do your homework
  2. Understand the politics
  3. Remember, if it’s too good to be true …
  4. Don’t dismiss others because of your own certification
  5. Accept that it might not be a good fit

The factor that seemed to have resonated the most with readers was No. 1, Do Your Homework, which I will expand upon here, while sharing some new factors to consider if you’re weighing a move that will put you in the top chief spot in a new area. Let’s pick up where we left off and start with factor No. 6.

[Complete the form on this page to download an infographic about what to consider before becoming an “outside chief.”]

6. Training and certifications

In 2004, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), with the assistance of fire service professionals and organizations from around the nation, introduced the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives as part of an effort to reduce firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs). Initiative 5 is focused on training and certifications, specifically the development and implementation of national standards for training, qualifications and certification (including regular recertification) that are equally applicable to all firefighters based on the duties they are expected to perform.
When considering going to a new area, it is important to understand what training and certifications are accepted, at what level, and how reciprocity is granted. There are variations that can nullify hard-earned training and certifications, meaning you’ll have to go through the process again.

While the NFPA outlines minimum standards, there are still inconsistencies among states. Many states have fire colleges and/or fire academies to administer training while some states rely on the technical colleges for training. In other cases, training is only provided by local departments without formal oversight.

Pro Board and the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC) are the two widely accepted accreditation systems, but that does not mean they are universal. For example, you may have Pro Board Instructor Level III, but if you move to a state where IFSAC is the accepted certification, only Level I is granted reciprocity. Thus, additional training is required at the new location. Further, the certification level may be higher in the originating state than what is offered in the new state.

This is an important factor to consider for several reasons:

  • You might feel the training and certification level required in the new area only rises to minimum standards, discouraging you from applying and missing an opportunity to have a positive impact.
  • In contrast, the certification level obtained in one state might be too low to be transportable to another state, where you could be successful but have not had the opportunity to acquire higher training and certifications at no fault of your own, thus eliminating you from the process.
  • As the incoming chief, you might want to raise the standard of training and certification for promotional purposes but are unable to do so because the certifications either do not exist, or funding for such classes is unavailable through the state fire colleges/academies or technical schools.

7. Mutual/automatic aid

Another factor to consider when eyeing a move to a new area is the department’s current role in mutual or automatic aid.
Aside from major metropolitan areas, there are few departments that can handle significant incidents by themselves. In most scenarios, departments are understaffed with full-time members, and the volunteer/paid-on-call/part-time recruitment is not sufficient to staff at various times of the day and night. Thus, departments rely on automatic or mutual aid.

While many areas have well-developed interoperability plans in place, there are many that are far from ready to implement such plans. Unfortunately, there is sometimes the complexity of neighboring departments “not playing well with others.”

One of the most common excuses for not embracing mutual or automatic aid is the all-too familiar mindset of “But that’s how we’ve always done it!” There are various reasons for this mindset. For one, some of the leaders in surrounding departments may not have experience working in in mutual or automatic aid – and/or they might not understand its importance to enhancing safety and service delivery. Another reason surrounding chiefs may resist mutual or automatic aid is rooted in fear of loss of recognition and department identity.

To be fair, there are legitimate reasons why some departments don’t have an established mutual or automatic aid plan in place. For one, the closest mutual-aid departments may be understaffed, inexperienced, unreliable and/or lack the level of professionalism desired when operating on emergency scenes.

Some leaders also fear the “powers-that-be” looking toward consolidation and/or regionalization that focuses more on control and cost-effectiveness than history or service delivery. When these powers start mulling such options, they can, whether intentionally or unintentionally, build resentment and divisions among departments that are difficult to overcome.

When considering an outside position, you should explore this environment and identify how your values align with more than just the single department you may be charged to lead.

8. Relationship-building and inside candidates

The ability to form relationships is one of the greatest skills a leader must demonstrate. This occurs through communication, attitude and trust. For many, forming relationships is not something that occurs easily; it takes time, especially trust.
When considering the outside position, take a look in the mirror, think about your own personality and how it aligns with the culture of the members whom you may be charged to lead, serve and work with.

Another point to consider in relationship-forming is whether there are inside candidates for the position. What is their certification, education, seniority and experience level? How does it match to yours? Are they individuals who you feel may be supportive, of no help, or even destructive if you end up getting the position? Will they be able to work with you in a positive way if you are selected over them?

Will you be able to build relationships with the workforce at the department? It’s important that you feel you can encourage full-time members to believe in the direction you can take the organization. Also understand, personality differences, as well as previous relationships with the former chiefs, may create unexpected challenges in relationship-building that simply cannot be overcome regardless how hard you try.

Relationships with bosses and elected officials can never be underestimated. There will be some things over which a chief has little control – agendas, favoritism and differences of opinions. But what is your ability to adapt to a changing political environment and landscape? What is your ability to build relationships in a diverse situation?

Another point to consider when relocating is whether anything will change between the time you accept the position and the time you start. This may include the person who hired you leaving unexpectedly before you arrive, which could mean working with someone who has a different vision for the department’s future.

Further, social media can be great for building relationships and marketing purposes; however, it also creates an environment in which everyone feels like part of the vetting committee. Once you are announced as the selection, some department members might do some online research that causes them to form early opinions about you.

9. Impact on family

When relationship-building within a new department is important, even more important is the relationship you nurture with your family. This fact should really be No. 1 on your list, which is why we conclude with it here – it’s the big one.
When considering the new position, ensure you understand the impact on your family:

  • Will your spouse and/or kids want to leave their current home?
  • Are there other family members, such as parents, whom the move would impact? Would you be able to be there for them if needed?
  • What is the impact on your spouse’s employment or relocating/leaving your kids when you move out of state?
  • What happens if being the fire chief does not work out for you, but your spouse enjoys their new employment/position/location?
  • What is the impact of being separated from your spouse/family for extended times if they do not relocate, and what is your availability to travel to visit them? What is the impact mentally on you, and your family, when you are away?

This is clearly a personal one for me – and one I understand well – as I have lived it many times. I have said that family is my No. 1 core value, but I realize now that there were times I failed to see past a career opportunity and truly consider the short- and long-term impact on my family.
My best advice is to never underestimate the importance of your family when you want to be the fire chief, whether in your current area or a new one. It is the most important, and most neglected, homework you can do when considering the fire chief position.

I dedicate this to my family!

Be safe!

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.

Survey respondents share their experiences with staffing stressors
Preliminary report finds Newark firefighters were ill-equipped and had little to no maritime firefighting training
Effective recruitment will look different for each agency, but the basics are the same and critical to get right
In buildings with additional fortification, it’s critical for crews to utilize forcible entry skills to establish sufficient entry and exit points