Factors to Consider When Pursuing a Fire Chief Position

No matter how many years you have in the fire service, becoming a fire chief is a life-changing process. If that sounds like an exaggeration to you, just talk to some of the chiefs you know. From the politics to the added responsibility, to the fact that you may be giving up what you love most-going to fires-the transition into the chief’s position is not one to be taken lightly.

Like any other major career step, there are things you can do to improve your chances for success and a smooth transition. In this article, I’ll share just a few of the factors to consider when you’re pursuing a fire chief position.

Is the Timing Right?

If you’re like most firefighters, you didn’t enter the fire service with the express desire to become a fire chief. Most firefighters decide on their long-term career paths about 10 years into their careers, if that early. At the beginning, I didn’t have a clue as to what I wanted out of this profession other than to pass my recruit and probationary training and get settled into a rewarding, quality job that paid the bills.

The first part of a decision to pursue a chief position is not to determine whether to prepare for that move, but whether it’s the right time to test the waters. The fact is you have been preparing for your future from day one by honing your fire service knowledge, skills and abilities. At some point you probably came to the realization that you needed the formal academic background of the modern CEO in order to lead a fire service organization in the 21st century. This academic background comes in the form of advanced degrees (master’s degrees are becoming the norm today), completion of the prestigious Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and/or acquiring your Chief Fire/Medical Officer designation.

So you’re ready professionally, having prepared technically and academically for the position, but is your personal life where it needs to be to make this important decision? Make no bones about it; this part of the decision is by far the hardest and most complicated. There may never be a time where your personal and professional stars align perfectly, but asking yourself these key questions can certainly help you decide whether to move forward or delay until a more appropriate point in time:

1. Are you financially able to cut ties with your current position? Moving to a fire chief position usually means you work at the pleasure of your boss, be it a city manager, fire board or elected official. You will most likely lose the comfort of civil service protection and your future is now subject to politics and other influences over which you have little control. If you don’t already have a pension, make sure the one you’re vested in can be transferred over. If not, you will have to live with what you are vested to receive for the remainder of your life.

2. If necessary, is your family willing to relocate? Many fire chief opportunities won’t be in your backyard. New schools, friends, a different climate, and leaving community organizations you’re involved in can all be disruptive to your family. It’s imperative that this step be taken seriously. Sit down with your loved ones and talk over the pros and cons of this decision beforehand rather than having to deal with the challenges they present after the fact.

3. Will your professional qualifications transfer over to your new position? Some states do not have reciprocal training/qualification agreements, meaning you may have to be recertified as a firefighter before you can assume any fireground operations in your new position. This may sound like a small inconvenience, but going through this process again can be very difficult and time-consuming in conjunction with everything else you will face in the new position.

4. Is the department size a good fit? The type of department you’re considering makes a big difference. Whether the department is large or small; metropolitan or rural; fully paid, volunteer, or combination; municipal or a fire district will all determine your comfort level. Each variable has its own particular set of challenges. Decide what you can handle before taking the plunge, especially if this is your first fire chief position. A good fit can make all the difference in your comfort level and ultimate chance for success.

5. Is this the type of community you will feel comfortable in? Are you a small-town person who likes the quiet life or someone who needs a busy city setting? Make sure you check out the community and what it has to offer. This proactive research will help make sure your new position provides the best possible fit for you and your family.

Put Your Best Foot Forward

You’ve decided that the timing is right and your family is supportive. You have meticulously pored over the trade journals and websites and selected one or more openings to apply for and are eager to get started. Remember: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Your application, cover letter and resume need to be professionally prepared and submitted on linen resume paper (if this is possible within the prescribed time limits). This attention to detail shows you care enough to go the extra mile and that you are a professional who takes pride in everything you do.

There will probably be several dozen applications for any given opening and many of the other applicants will be very qualified. So you need to stand out from the crowd from the very start in order to get your foot in the door. It’s the little things that can make or break your entrance into the job you want. Don’t rush this process.

Hurry Up & Wait

You’ve followed all the instructions and met the application deadline. A few weeks have passed and you have not heard anything back about your application. Don’t panic! Many of these processes take weeks or even months to move forward, especially if the current fire chief is not yet retired or hasn’t yet moved on. You may be applying through a professional recruiting agency or directly to the municipal human resources department, and each institution will have their own specific timeline for processing the applications.

If it has been a few weeks with no response you may want to call the contact person to inquire whether a timeline for decision-making has been established. But never make a pest of yourself. Let them know you’re interested, but respect the timeline they establish.

When you get a call or a letter informing you that you’re not being considered-and you will at some point-think of it as necessary experience and move on. Letters of rejection may come quickly or may take many months, and in some instances you may never hear anything one way or another. Either way, don’t get discouraged; you will eventually get a positive response. In the words of Jack Nicklaus, one of our greatest golfers, “Resolve never to quit, never to give up, no matter what the situation.”

You Made the Cut

After several preliminary phone calls and an extensive background check, you make a finalist list for your dream job. Now the nerves kick in-it’s time to shine.

Dress for success. As previously stated, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Proper grooming, a well-pressed suit, shined shoes, a smile and a firm handshake place you on the path to success as you walk into the interview. Then it’s up to you to sell yourself. Go into this process being yourself and not trying to be someone you think the municipality is looking for in a new fire chief. This will allow you to sell your true self in a confident and professional manner. It does you no good to pretend to be something you are not because you will have to live up to that persona if selected, and that can be disastrous. Be open and honest with all your responses. If you are the best fit you will rise to the top. If not, there are more opportunities that lie ahead that may be a better fit for you and your future employer.

They Want You!

At some point in what can seem like a endless process, you’re offered a fire chief position. Sit back and really ask yourself whether it’s truly a good fit for you and your family. You should have already done your preliminary research, but now is the final decision. Don’t get caught up in the feeling of accomplishment that you beat out so many qualified applicants. Complete your homework on the schools, the community, the department, the salary and benefits, the cost of living in the area and the climate you will be relocating to. No matter how good the job is, your personal life will suffer if this decision is not made with a level head and taking all these things into close consideration.

When you finally decide a certain offer is a good fit both personally and professionally, it’s time to finalize benefits, salary and working conditions with your prospective employer. Don’t assume you know all the details without asking. Get anything agreed upon in writing. This is to protect both you and your employer so neither side is under any misconceptions. If things don’t feel right, you’re not obligated to move forward. Just simply and graciously decline their offer and move on to a situation that better fits your desires. It’s better to realize this now than to accept the position only to discover you’re not happy.

Enjoy the Moment

When you have finally accepted the position, sit back and enjoy your accomplishments for a short time. There will be time to jump into the job with both feet. All too soon you will be challenged by the troops, eager to discover how you’re going to react to the many challenges. Take time to thank and work with your family on the adjustments that will be required of them as you move into this next phase of your career and your life. If possible, take a vacation or just get away for a day or two to unwind after the whirlwind experience you have just encountered. This pause will pay great dividends in the long run because the next phase will take all of your time and effort for the foreseeable future.

No matter how prepared you think you are, there will always be aspects of the fire chief position that will surprise and challenge you. But remember, you have filled your toolbox with all the required tools to help you get through anything they can throw at you. Rely on your past, engage your staff and never stop learning. Continually fill that toolbox with new and improved tools that help you meet the challenges of the modern fire chief. Remember the words of Henry Ford who once said, <i>”Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”</i>

Stay young, absorb all you can and do your best to be prepared to lead your department into a new era of the fire service.

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