Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum: May 2015

When I was approached to write this column, I thought it would be a great opportunity to discuss my journey to a deputy-chief position, the challenges I faced in attaining the position and those I have experienced in my new role. I hope my columns provide some insight into how a chief officer experiences the transition from a front-line responder to an administrative role.

April 20, 2015 
By Bill Boyes

My longstanding and proud familial ties to the fire service started with my grandfather Bill, who joined the Alliston Fire Department in Ontario in 1949 and served as chief from 1958 through 1968. Undoubtedly inspired, my father Richard joined the same department in 1973 and worked his way to deputy chief at the age of 30. He has enjoyed a long and successful career as a chief in two other Ontario municipalities and is now executive director of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. Given these ties and the influence of the fire service in our everyday lives, it is not surprising that my two brothers and I joined the emergency services.

After graduating recruit training with Brampton Fire and Emergency Services, I immediately sought my next steps. While I cannot pin down one specific event or situation that prompted my desire to become a chief officer, it definitely had something to do with dinner-table discussions about the challenges of leading a fire department in an era of unrelenting change.

Despite my unique access to the inner workings of fire-service management, it was quickly apparent there were significant challenges to attaining a chief-officer position. With no specific career-development path in Ontario for aspiring chief officers, I began to prepare for a chief-officer position without actually knowing what was required. The ramifications of poor or ignorant career decisions are extremely significant from financial, professional and personal perspectives. Going back to your former position within an association or finding a similar position in another sector is, for the most part, impossible. Our somewhat unique skill set as responders is difficult to transfer into another sector for similar wages and benefits.

Everyone I asked for advice had similar opinions. Most advised building up many years of service while incrementally moving through the ranks along with joining the union executive to understand labour relations and gaining some administrative experience. A select few (mainly my father) strongly advocated for completing a university degree in public administration. Thankfully, I listened to those who had the foresight to promote the importance of formal education.


Historically, compiling years of service was the de facto method to become a chief officer. It is difficult to pinpoint when the fire service changed to stress formal education, but certainly in the last decade fire-service administration practices have evolved to mirror those commonly found in the broader public sector.

The demands placed on chief officers have grown substantially due to a changing economic environment, an enhanced need for public-sector accountability, the transformation from a fire service to an emergency service, and many non-emergency responsibilities. The training and experience acquired through many years of fighting fires and responding to emergencies has produced efficient emergency responders; however, it has done little to adequately prepare the chief officers to strategically lead large public-sector departments with multi-million dollar budgets, legal responsibilities and human-resource challenges, all of which are conducted in politically sensitive environments. Chief officers in every fire department need to possess similar skill sets that are based on normative public-sector administrative and management principles. Furthermore, all chief officers must operate within the municipal management team.

Chief officers must contribute to the strategic and operational success of the municipality. This can be an arduous task given many of our peers at the management level of a corporation bring combinations of university education and incrementally increasing administrative responsibility.

Ensuring the chief officers are sufficiently trained and prepared through a combination of formal education and competency is the only sustainable practice that will guarantee future success. Any aspiring chief officer must understand that the career path to fire-service management requires competency in the administration of a public entity, and formal education should underpin that competency.

In future columns I will discuss challenges and unexpected situations I have faced, the steps necessary to reach a chief’s position, offer some advice for those who want to climb the ladder, and reveal some things you may not discover until you attain the position.

Bill Boyes is the deputy chief of operations and training for Barrie Fire and Emergency Service in Ontario. Contact him at

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