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‘What we do is not for a pat on the back – it’s about the mission and our members’

Reflections on leadership from an IAFC Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year


Bell, right, on scene.

Editor’s Note: Chief Thomas Bell was named the IAFC Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year during the association’s annual Fire-Rescue International conference in 2023. The Fire Chief of the Year award recognizes one volunteer and one career fire chief for their leadership, innovation, professional development, integrity, public service and contributions to the fire service. The IAFC presents the award in partnership with the award sponsor, Pierce Manufacturing, and the award’s media partner, FireRescue1. Nominations for the Fire Chief of the Year are currently being accepted through the IAFC. Learn how to submit a worthy fire chief here.

“What does someone do to be a good leader?”

This is a question that is asked time and time again. It is my belief that the answer depends on the person to whom the question is directed. To me, to be a good leader, you must be a good follower – and this is how my story begins.

I grew up in the City of Greensburg, located in southwestern Pennsylvania, 35 miles east of Pittsburgh. We lived on the city-owned golf course, as my father was the golf course superintendent, known in the old days as a “greenskeeper.” My father would wake up every day long before the sun came up and finish every day after the sun went down. He was a dedicated and hard-working man.

When I was 14 years old, I was introduced to the city’s fire service, and it was the city fire department where I got my first experience being a good follower. It was here that I met an exceptional leader who was not only known by everyone in Greensburg but throughout the state of Pennsylvania. John Edward Hutchinson was elected to the position of fire chief in 1953 and held that position until 2016 – 63 years.

Chief Hutchinson, known to everyone as “Hutch,” was dedicated to owning and running his metal fabricating shop while leading the Greensburg Fire Department 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Many times, I thought to myself, “When does this man sleep?” Hutch was just like my dad, and back then, I thought they were both crazy for their tireless work ethic.

I came up through the junior firefighter program, spending the next four years watching, learning and attending every class possible, and in November 1985, I graduated from the program and became a firefighter. I thought that maybe I could do this as a career, but ultimately, that wasn’t in the cards for me. After graduating from high school, I got a full-time job with the City of Greensburg at the very same golf course where my father worked. This is when I started to learn that my father and Hutch were not so crazy after all.

My fire service leadership journey

Life was defined for me – up early, go to work, come home, repeat. Before I knew it, several years had passed. I spent my nights living at the fire station. I was a driver/engineer for five years, moving the truck on all alarms during the night. This was my “shift” – and this is where I started to learn about leadership.

Every fire call that we went on, every day at work, I observed 10 firefighters drop whatever they were doing to listen to and follow what this one firefighter would say. Some things were said with great assertion and others with humor coupled with seriousness. I learned this was the way to mentor and teach, to excel at the task and earn respect.

My father would say, “You get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar.” The easiest way to do that was to do things right alongside the crew, to get involved and make sure they know that you just don’t tell them what to do, you also show them how to do it. Show them and teach them, don’t just preach at them.

I served the fire department with the rank of sergeant as my first officer position in Hose Company No. 6. The captain at the time felt my time and efforts were revealing leadership qualities in me and thought the rank would be a good position for me.

The team and I got along very well, and they listened to me as I gave orders at the fire scene even though I was just the driver with a sergeant rank. There were four to five of us on the truck at night, depending on who stayed at the fire hall. I did sometimes find myself alone there, but could always rely on our captain, Joe Suarez, to be waiting at the top of Spring Street as I crested Depot Street on all alarms.

Later, I was made a lieutenant, then captain. I served as captain until 2010 when Hutch appointed me to a deputy assistant chief’s position. I served in that position for six years before being named the chief of the department when Hutch stepped down at the age of 94. This is the position I dreamed of as a kid, and now, after being mentored by the best, Chief John Edward Hutchinson, it was time for me to lead the Greensburg Volunteer Fire Department.

Making changes, maintaining membership

I knew serving as chief was not going to be easy. It was a huge undertaking, as I would be leading a department that needed updates – and I needed to do this without losing the respect of the membership. Fireground operations needed an overhaul with safety being TOP priority.

With a department-wide effort, we implemented a much more aggressive on-scene command structure. I wanted to ensure that the role was filled, but also, I wanted to know who was filling it. From a command perspective, I wanted to know what was happening around the entire building, so I began assigning four, sometimes five, chiefs to take up visuals on all sides of the structure.

Another deficit was accountability. The job of the fireground chiefs would be to track who was in and who was out – no more free-for-alls going into the structure. We established a rapid-intervention team on all working fires as well as a decon area for the teams after the incidents. All these initiatives had to be incorporated to improve our department in the interest of the health and welfare of our members.

We knew a few things were missing in our department at the time of my transition, but I felt a few additions that would create a smoother transition without reinventing the wheel would make change much easier on the membership.

All are welcome

Although our department has an aged membership, I looked at it as all of our members, young and old, play a vital role in our existence. The knowledge of our older members is like money in the bank – institutional knowledge is something that no books or instructors with all of their certifications could ever teach. After all, as I heard recently, “just because the shoes are old, it doesn’t mean they are no good.” Sometimes the old shoes are more comfortable than new ones. The Greensburg Volunteer Fire Department promotes, “We have a place for you in our department.” That means whatever your age, we have a place for you. There are all types of things to do, and we are always looking for that extra helping hand while making our community members feel welcome.

It’s not about the pat on the back

There is so much more to leadership than just making rules and wearing the white hat; it’s about making sure that the 30 or 40 men and women at the next incident go home to their loved ones and family. It is about coming up with ways to find funds to make sure we have the equipment to do this job – and do it safely. It’s about doing what’s necessary to make the members believe in us, earning their trust to lead them, and understanding that what we do is not for a pat on the back – it’s about the mission and our members. We pour everything into a job that we don’t get paid for, but we do it because it’s what we were meant to do.

This is why I do this job, not because I have to, but rather, because I love to. The men and women in this department make all this work, and I respect and care for each and every one of them. I have been blessed to have two very important men in my life who exemplified leadership and helped me became a good leader for the men and women in this department.

There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of both my father and Hutch. I hope they are both looking down and proud of what they see in me.

Hear more from Chief Bell on the Better Every Shift podcast:

About the author
Thomas Bell has been the fire chief for the Greensburg Fire Department in Pennsylvania since 2016. He was named the 2023 IAFC Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year during the association’s annual Fire-Rescue International conference. The Fire Chief of the Year award recognizes one volunteer and one career fire chief for their leadership, innovation, professional development, integrity, public service and contributions to the fire service.