If you are reading this article and are interested in fire-service leadership, regardless of your rank, age, or department’s size, you know our profession has changed significantly in a short time period. The common fire service mantra of “200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress” does not apply to fire-service leadership.
I often contemplate what might have concerned my grandfather as a fire chief many decades ago. Surely there were operational and financial challenges. To say it was easier would be both ignorant and unfair, but undoubtedly today’s concerns are different and more complex. I have no doubt that every chief officer in today’s fire service would probably trade an email-free day for the pressures from yesteryear.
Expectations placed on the senior leadership are continuously evolving, and chief officers are forced to adapt to rapid and unrelenting change. Expectations, job demands and time pressures come from numerous internal and external stakeholders. Meeting the needs of our stakeholders is a major and growing responsibility.
Many aspiring chief officers may not consider an easily over looked responsibility that is a critical expectation that fire chiefs must meet. Can you guess what that expectation is?
Hint: the name at the top of your pay stub, your employer . . . that being your municipality. Chief officers are called on to contribute to the strategic and operational success of the municipality.
Incumbent fire chiefs will quickly tell you that the senior leadership of a corporation has to deliver a wide range of high quality public services within many financial constraints. This can be a significant and time-consuming part of a fire chief’s job. These responsibilities can come in the form of committee contributions, senior leadership meetings, project leadership, or any other administrative task focused on municipal service delivery. Shifting societal and employee expectations of workplace leadership, financial pressures, public-sector accountability, an expanding scope of services provided and increasing non-emergency responsibilities have contributed to the new challenges we face. From a legislative perspective, in Ontario under the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, a fire chief is the person who is ultimately responsible to a municipal council that appointed him or her to deliver fire protection services. Given this ultimate responsibility, most fire chiefs will report to the chief administrative officer (CAO), deputy CAO or commissioner/ general manager. Regardless of the reporting relationship, the role of the fire chief has a significant public and corporate profile, which comes with high expectations.
Many municipal managers are required to strategically lead large public-sector departments with multi-million dollar budgets, which comes with its own legal responsibilities and human-resource challenges, all conducted in politically sensitive environments. For the chief officers of a fire department, effectively contributing within the municipal management team can be an arduous task. Many of our peers at the management level of a corporation possess a solid combination of education and increasing administrative responsibilities. In addition, our corporate leadership peers typically have greater exposure to the corporate world than many of our fire service members would have. The reasons for this can range from a close geographic proximity to city hall or administrative experience, including writing reports, attending meetings, and liaising with other city departments.
Typically, many of our chief officers only get the opportunity to practice these skills after a career of operating in a frontline emergency response line or staff capacity. This reinforces the need for increasing administrative exposure throughout career progression. Aspiring officers should receive a tailored formal education and have an understanding of what the role of fire chief entails.
Perhaps these factors contribute to the perception of fire chief as a terminal position, limited by an invisible glass ceiling that inhibits many from assuming chief or deputy chief officer roles. Perhaps the role of CAO is not of interest to many of our fire service colleagues. Perhaps there are other contributing factors that are dependent on the individuals and municipality involved. Whatever the case may be, it is important that fire service leadership development focuses on external departmental issues, relationships and challenges. Essentially, it requires you to wear two hats: the fire helmet and corporate hat. With this increased understanding of fire service administration, we can ultimately serve the community and our department better.
Bill Boyes is the fire chief for Brampton Fire & Emergency Services in Ontario. He is working on a PhD at the University of Toronto, which supplements his master’s degree in public policy and administration and bachelor’s degree in public management. Contact him at
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