A fire chief is the commanding officer of a fire department, overseeing daily operations of every branch of the department. The fire chief is the public face of the city, regional or state fire agency, and as such must exhibit calm under sever conditions and focus on leadership and fiscal responsibilities in this highly visible role. Most often, fire chiefs are elected – which means they must campaign for the job – but a few are appointed directly to the position. Most often, they work in their departments for many years before achieving this top executive rank, gaining much of the necessary training along the way. The road to a career as a fire chief can be a long one, but this guide aims to help those seeking the position navigate the most common steps along the way.
Very few fire chiefs earn their rank before working as a firefighter for years, often filling a number of roles along the way. The first step for any prospective fire chief should be to secure a position as an entry-level firefighter. In order to do this, applicants will need at least a high school degree, and will need to be able to pass both written and physical examinations. While a college education usually isn’t required at this level, more education can only make candidates more desirable.
For more information, please refer to our guide to becoming a firefighter.
Fire departments, like police departments and the military, operate using the chain of command structure. Entry-level firefighters (whether paid or volunteer) are at the bottom and the fire chief is at the top, but there is a significant distance between the two. After proving themselves, firefighters may be eligible for promotion to a company officer position. These lieutenants and captains are the first level of leadership in the organization and are often in charge of stations. Chief officers rank above the company officers. These are the division and battalion chiefs and the assistant, deputy and district fire chiefs. At the top sits the fire chief who controls the department and most often reports directly the jurisdiction’s governing body, fire commissioner or mayor.
Leadership ability is perhaps the most essential skill in a fire chief’s arsenal. Successful chiefs should know how to build a diverse, experienced and loyal team or organization. Make a point of participating across the board on agency activities, from inspecting a fire station to joining in high-rise drills or training burns. A good leader has an eye for the big picture, but also knows the nuances of the work he or she is asking of the department. In other words, understating logistics and resource management is important, but a good fire chief must also know how to lay hose and handle an axe.
Education is also important. Anyone aspiring to the position of fire chief has likely already gained some formal education in subjects such as fire chemistry and combustion, fire dynamics, construction and safety codes and hazardous material handling. However, throughout a firefighter’s career, continuous education should be expected, as should the need to establish new credentials and renew existing ones. Two- and four-year degree programs can lead to advancement in inspection or investigations roles, while a post-graduate education in public service administration, finance, or management can open doors to top-level agency positions. Additionally, fire command training is offered across the country in workshops and seminars. The Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) in Virginia offers training and certification through the Commission on Professional Credentialing (CPC). The CPC offers certifications for Fire Officer, Chief Fire Officer, Chief EMS Officer, Chief Training Officer and Fire Marshal.