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First Steps to Becoming a Fire Chief

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Firefighting has always been a staple of respect in American communities. Following the 9/11 attacks, 90% of Americans1 rated firefighter professionals as “high” or “very high” in regard to honesty and integrity. The heroic actions of our first responders that day have contributed to heightened awareness of the profession with a reported 76% of Americans2 who now view firefighting as a prestigious profession.

Becoming a firefighter is a huge accomplishment as over 70% of potential candidates3 give up the pursuit and move onto other careers. Becoming a firefighter is the first step in a rewarding career in public service and safety; there is plenty of room for professional growth and advancement. Becoming the chief of a fire department is an incredible success and shows a deeper understanding of the management and leadership of both human capital and blazes. For the firefighter seeking to progress through the ranks, here are 6 tips on how to become a fire chief.

1. Be Involved and Volunteer in the Community

Volunteering gives you, the firefighter, hands-on experience in the local community and as a bonus, enhances your resume. Allowing you to develop community connections, gain first-hand knowledge of available community resources, and identify local needs. These connections and knowledge cannot be underestimated as leadership positions involve extensive interaction with people. Volunteering for tasks around the station, too, demonstrates an ability to lead by example.

Keep in mind that true leadership is leading by example, and no job is too menial. A Fire Chief is respected for personal character and behavior, above and beyond the position held.

2. Promote through Experience and Evaluation

The path from entry-level firefighter to Fire Chief requires years of experience, climbing the firefighter rankings, passing examinations along the way and advancing their education. The first step is earning a company officer position such as lieutenant, gaining on-the-job leadership, management and role experience. Ask questions and proactively seek opportunities to shadow other leaders to understand their strategies and responsibilities. Roles and positions vary by state and county so make an effort to understand the expectations of each rank leading up to Chief. Use these expectations to set milestone goals as you earn each promotion.

Typical ranks could include:

  • Firefighter: Front line emergency response
  • Lieutenant: Directs, supervises, and assumes training duties of the fire department
  • Captain: Administrative and supervisory duties and trains and develops department personnel in relevant policies
  • Battalion/ District Chief: Demonstrate leadership in administrative and supervisory functions, as well as manage community relationships and outreach.
  • Deputy Chief: Development and management of budget, recruitment, procedure development and high-level supervision [Reporting directly to the Chief]
  • Chief: Plan, organize, direct and implement required human capital, fire prevention, suppression within the community and managed county departments

3. Enroll in Advanced College Coursework

Firefighters are expected to continually advance their education and obtain new credentials. Formal education enables the firefighter to learn techniques specific to the profession, provide enhanced community protection, and develop management skills.

FESHE, the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education initiative, offers emergency services-related education and training that can be obtained by itself or in combination with a degree program. Anna Maria College was the first four year school in the country to be awarded Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) recognition4 for developing a state-of-the-art Bachelor of Science in Fire Science program featuring FESHE National Professional Development Model core courses as standard.

Two- and four-year degree programs can lead to inspection or investigation roles, while a post-graduate education in public service administration, finance, or management opens doors to top-level agency and public administration positions. Participating in formal fire science courses sets an individual apart and exemplifies the self-motivation, determination and leadership qualities necessary for promotion.

4. Regular Introspection and Physical Fitness

Always be alert for areas of improvement; hopefully anticipating them before someone has to point out your need to do so. Identify and improve personal struggles such as time management, self-motivation, public speaking, and maintaining balance between personal and professional roles.

Firefighters are also expected to maintain standards of physical fitness, and the Fire Chief is no exception. Healthy sleep habits and nutrition translate into peak job performance.

5. Develop Community Connections and Resources

The position of Fire Chief5 is often a political post; speaking at press conferences can become a common responsibility. As chief, you are expected to make the case for introducing new policies, pilot programs and equipment, coordinating fire control, rescue, hazardous material clean-up and other measures with emergency response leaders, and enforcing municipal fire codes. An effective Fire Chief must have strong connections in the community, with an extensive knowledge of the available support and possible improvement specific to the local area.

6. Apply for Fire Chief Employment Opportunities

Become familiar with the hiring processes involved in advanced positions; know what to expect and the application procedure. Search available positions6 frequently as not to miss the ideal opportunity. Maintain a clean record and a good repertoire among the department staff. Identify strong references, leverage your legacy connections and manage a professional resume.

Finally, take a deep breath and have confidence in yourself and your accomplishments– you have come so far already. Your dedication, experience, and education will help you combat and overcome everything in your career path.



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