The Journey to Fire Chief: Taking a Page from the Surface Warfare Community

Future fire chiefs can plan a diversified career by ensuring they are exposed to the right experiences, training, and education.
You must be able to drive, fight, manage, and command, in the fire service. (U.S. Navy photo)

Fire chiefs must be able to speak to all areas
of their fire department

By Sean F. Peck

Today’s fire chiefs have unique challenges that they must face in this dynamically changing fire service. As we have accepted more risk/hazards, we have assumed many roles outside of traditional firefighting. Throughout my life, I have been enamored by the military. I had the privilege of serving my country in the United States Navy as an Aviation Warfare Systems operator. I have always loved that your career path options were laid out for you if you stayed until the end. The United States Navy Surface Warfare officer’s (SWO) career path is designed with the end goal of being the commanding officer, where “well-trained officers are ready to command ships from day one” (Brown, 2018). This concept can be true in the fire service and matches the four levels of fire officer.

The SWO career path has four distinct experiences: drive the ship, fight the ship, manage the ship, and command the ship. To begin their journey, SWOs must drive the ship. Their initial tour is based on divisional duties as a junior officer, consisting of operations, deck, admin, and engineering. They are exposed to the entire ship, and this experience of driving the ship is very much like the company officer position in the fire service. Captains and lieutenants perform specific functions based on apparatus types and are the backbone of fire department operations and, in many cases, the eyes of prevention. Fire prevention or community risk reduction is within everyone’s duties, and the skills gained as a company officer become paramount as you rise through the ranks.

Fighting the ship refers to the department head tour. Here, SWOs have expanded leadership duties and oversee multiple divisions within their department. They also get an opportunity to have numerous experiences in various departments on the ship. In fire departments, these are the managing and administrative fire officers, battalion chiefs, division chiefs, and assistant chiefs. The fire service journey continues as the depth and breadth of leadership broaden. Diversity in training and education becomes very important as the job expands from an operations perspective to other specialized areas within the fire service. This fire officer level needs to diversify into community risk reduction, health and safety, accreditation, emergency medical services, and training. They need to seek out learning opportunities that are outside their comfort level. This is where the future deputy chiefs and chiefs learn their job.

Managing the ship is the executive officer of the ship. The executive officer’s duties are to run the day-to-day operations of the ship. Executive officers have been exposed to all areas of the ship and are an expert on that ship. In the fire service, the second in command is the deputy chief or assistant chief. In many cases, multiple divisions will report to them, and they are the conductor of the fire department. They ensure the department runs smoothly and efficiently.

The fire chief is the commanding officer. This position requires the most diversity in education, training, and experiences. Fire chiefs answer to some form of higher authority: a district board, city council, city manager, or city mayor. They also answer to the customer and the team. They need to be able to speak to all aspects of the fire department.

Everyone who pursues a career in the fire service does it for a variety of reasons. Not everyone aspires to be the fire chief, which is perfect because our members rely on the senior member as the subject matter expert, which exists at every rank. However, those who wish to climb the career ladder need to plan for the eventuality of being the fire chief from day one. The National Fire Academy Professional Development Model and the IAFC Fire Officer Development Handbook provide a roadmap or career path for the aspiring fire chief.

Career progression preparation is broken up into three areas: education, training, and experience. Experience comes with time and interactions, and we cannot control it, save for being ready for the next one. However, we are able to pursue education and training. Firefighting is becoming a white-collar occupation; knowledge is necessary. The experience and education gained in college are immeasurable. Every class you take has some benefit to your career, even though you may not realize this dividend immediately. Fire chiefs should have a comprehensive education resume. Training also needs to be diverse. The prospective fire chief needs to be trained in all areas of the fire department and, at a minimum, needs to be trained or certified as Fire Officer IV, Fire Instructor II, and Fire Inspector II per the applicable National Fire Protection Association standard.

Fire chiefs must be able to speak to all areas of their fire department, and this journey begins on the first day they decide on a career in the fire service. Just like the junior surface warfare officer who has the prospect of commanding the ship, future fire chiefs can plan a diversified career by ensuring they are exposed to the right experiences, training, and education.

Sean F. Peck is a 23-year veteran of the fire service and Deputy Chief for Federal Fire Department-San Diego. He is also an Adjunct Professor for Arizona Western College and Palomar College. He is certified up to Fire Officer IV, Fire Instructor III, and Fire Inspector II as well as many other certifications including being a licensed paramedic. He has a Master of Education, a Bachelor of Science in Adult Education, and Associate of Applied Science degrees in Fire Science and Emergency Medical Services-Paramedic.

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