10 Things You Need to Know Before Becoming a Chief

FRI seminar highlights factors from building an effective team to "sweating the small stuff"

By Shannon Pieper
Published Thursday, August 25, 2011

Apparently, a lot of people in the fire service—including a lot of chiefs!—are curious about what they should know, or should have known, before they become chief officers.

The session “Things I Wish I Would Have Known Before I Became a Fire Chief” was packed, with numerous people standing in back. Many identified themselves as active chiefs.

Chief Tom Jenkins V and Deputy Fire Chief Jake Rhoades, both of the Rogers (Ark.) Fire Department, shared 10 things they feel are essential to being an effective chief officer.

For those of you who couldn’t squeeze in the room, here’s a quick recap:

1. Assemble an effective team. Rhoades and Jenkins use the acronym DETAILS to demonstrate what qualities to look for:

Diversity in the field
Experience—not necessarily length, but type
Team-oriented
Attitude—positive leadership cascades downward
Intelligence
Loyalty—to the organization, to the members, to the position of the chief
Specialization—expertise in different areas

2. Be a positive influence. Your attitude has a great affect on employee morale. Jenkins argued that most fire departments don’t celebrate enough he advocates celebrating graduations from academies, retirements, new apparatus, committee work, grants.

3. Realize you’re just a slice of the pie. Imagine fire chiefs wearing shirts with the city logo on them, rather than the department logo. Ridiculous, right? But Rhoades and Jenkins point out that the “we’re an island” mentality of many fire departments hurts them in the long run. Fire chiefs need to collaborate with their city government counterparts and get involved with economic development. “If the city grows, the fire department grows,” Jenkins said. (Note: They’re NOT advocating that chiefs wear city polos!)

4. Sweat the small stuff. Chief officers tend to focus all their attention on big items like the budget, ISO, accreditation, and strategic planning. No doubt, these things are very important. But little details matter too, especially to the troops. Showing you’re in touch with the day-to-day stuff, making such the stations are kept up, can make a big difference to the frontline firefighters.

5. Know your stuff. Members have to respect you; you’re the chief! But in reality, you want them to respect the person, not just the office. How do you do that? By constantly self-educating, training and continuously learning. And it doesn’t hurt to admit when you don’t know things, too. An apology when you mess things up goes a long way to building trust.

6. You can’t lead from an office—get your hands dirty! Participate in high-rise drills, company evolutions and training burns. Not only is this a good way to evaluate your company officers and BCs, but it builds rapport with the troops. And it keeps your skills sharp!

7. Know your weaknesses. What don’t you do well? Who can you trust to be honest with you? How do you make up for your weak areas? Jenkins noted that he took an EMD class when he realized he was having difficulties dealing with dispatch. Other common weaknesses: public speaking, time management, work/life balance, lack of follow through.

8. Don’t forget all the “terms.” There’s short, medium and long term, and chief officers must be cognizant of all of them. Jenkins and Rhoades define these terms by budget—short term is this budget, medium term is next budget, and long term is future budgets. You need to manage all three.

9. Watch out for bullets. Even the best chief officers will have a “bullet” shot their way from time to time. Having loyal people around reduces the number you’ll need to dodge, but there will inevitably be some. Stay politically connected, follow through, communicate, and you’ll reduce your vulnerability to these attacks.

10. Open doors. Being a chief officer is a temporary assignment, and it should be used to improve the department as much as possible and improve the lives of the members. You need to spend your time introducing new policies, programs and equipment that make working conditions safer, and make your members happier. “It’s OK to care about your legacy,” Jenkins says—just as long as you’re doing the right things to build that legacy.

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©2011, Kevin C. Rose/AtlantaPhotos.com

10 Things You Need to Know Before Becoming a Chief

FRI seminar highlights factors from building an effective team to "sweating the small stuff"
©2011, Kevin C. Rose/AtlantaPhotos.com