Effective management and leadership are essential in fire departments. Both line and chief officers play an integral role in determining the effectiveness and efficiency of their department and its ability to fulfill its mission.
Fire departments across the nation face many challenges. One of the most important is the development of personnel to assume positions of leadership within the department. To that end, the leadership gap that exists in many fire departments must be addressed.
Line officers need to be able to make an informed decision if they're seeking career advancement to the chief officer ranks. Therefore, it's important to provide those individuals with a realistic preview of the roles and responsibilities of the position, as well as practical suggestions regarding preparation for and making a successful transition.
Understanding the similarities and differences between line and chief officer positions is extremely important. It's this understanding that provides a realistic preview, which then enables line officers to determine whether they should seek chief officer positions. This information also can be invaluable in ensuring a successful transition to chief officer.
The roles and responsibilities of chief officers have similarities and differences to those of line officers. Both line officers and chief officers are goal oriented and responsible for completion of tasks within their area of responsibility. However, the primary difference between these positions is that line officers function as supervisors whereas chief officers function as managers.
Chief officers are responsible for performing the four basic management functions:
Planning is the primary management function and involves determining mission, goals, objectives and strategies.
Organizing is the allocation of resources to fulfill organizational plans.
Directing is the implementation of planned initiatives and strategies, and is enhanced through effective leadership.
Controlling is the monitoring of actual results, the comparison of these results to plans and the use of corrective action, as appropriate.
Chief officers function as middle or top management of a fire department. As such, they have a broader scope of responsibility than line officers who work at the operational level. Also, the planning horizon of chief officers is longer than that of line officers. Along with managing the day-to-day activities of the fire department both on and off the incident scene, successful chief officers must engage in proactive planning for the future of their fire department.
The managerial roles of chief officers include interpersonal, informational and decision-making roles. The interpersonal roles of the chief officer are leader, liaison and figurehead. The informational roles include monitor, disseminator and spokesperson. Entrepreneur, disturbance handler, resource allocator and negotiator are included within the decision-maker roles.
The responsibilities of the chief officer typically are position- and service-specific. The fire chief has a broader scope of responsibilities than that of the training deputy chief. Chief officers may serve in positions that have line, staff, or a combination of line and staff authority. This combination of line and staff authority is typical when a chief officer has both on- and off-scene responsibilities.
Preparation makes perfect
Line officers looking to become successful chief officers should develop the knowledge, skills and attitude necessary to manage and lead. This preparation must consider the roles and responsibilities that a chief officer is likely to perform both on and off the incident scene.
Chief officers require technical, human and conceptual skills. Technical skills involve understanding specific tasks and proficiency in performing them. There are two levels on which the chief officers must possess technical skills: supervisory and personal. They must have the technical understanding of the tasks that personnel under their command must perform to accomplish strategies implemented in managing an incident.
As a member advances through the officer ranks, specific technical knowledge of functional areas such as fire, rescue or hazmat decreases in importance. The chief officer also must have task-specific technical skills, such as an understanding of an incident command system or budgeting practices within the municipality and fire department.
Human skills involve the ability to work with others. These are crucial within any organization but are particularly important in a fire department, given its reliance on teamwork for the safe, effective and efficient completion of tasks. The importance of human skills remains relatively constant as one advances through the officer ranks.
In contrast, conceptual skills increase in importance with advancement within a fire department. These skills involve the ability to comprehend the big picture and understand the organization and the environment in which it operates. This managerial skill set is particularly important given the many opportunities and blockades fire departments may face.
As managers, chief officers must work with and through others to accomplish the goals and objectives of the fire department in an effective and efficient manner. As an individual advances through the officer ranks, the scope and impact of the decisions he or she makes increases.
There are five bases of power that an individual can use to motivate or influence others' behavior. Three of these, legitimate, reward and coercive powers, are used by managers. Legitimate power is based on the position one holds within the organizational hierarchy and the authority that accompanies that position. Reward power is based on having the authority to reward others, whereas coercive power is based on having the authority to punish others. Chief officers have these powers based on the position that they hold within the fire department organizational structure.
As managers, chief officers are responsible for effectively and efficiently managing the present. But as leaders, chief officers must prepare their fire departments for the future. Leadership is the ability to influence others to work toward the goals and objectives of the organization.
Successful managers must possess the technical, human and conceptual skills necessary to perform the management functions of planning, organizing, directing and controlling. They must possess communication and decision-making skills that support each of the management functions.
Successful leaders articulate a vision for the future, develop a consensus regarding that vision, and facilitate the development of shared goals and objectives. These goals and objectives should, where possible, be expressed in a manner that results in buy-in from fire department personnel who recognize that attaining the organizational goals and objectives also will result in the attainment of their personal and professional goals.
As leaders, chief officers use the additional two power bases, referent power and expert power. Referent power is based on the attraction and respect that others have for the leader. An individual whom others enjoy working with and for will develop referent power. Expert power derives from the knowledge or skills that an individual possesses. These skills or knowledge may relate to technical operations, the organization or the environment in which the fire department operates.
The most successful fire officers are those who are both managers and leaders. As managers, they have the responsibilities and authority associated with their position, and as leaders they have the ability to motivate subordinates to want to follow their orders and directives. The manager/leader mode is the ideal situation for both the chief officer and the fire department.
Since the specific roles and responsibilities of the chief officer will be determined by the position he or she holds, a good starting point in assessing and developing the necessary knowledge and skills is to develop a realistic understanding of duties and responsibilities of that position and the necessary qualifications to successfully fill the position. This information should be supplemented with information resulting from networking and a review of job descriptions, specifications and postings.
Those who aspire to chief officer positions should consider their current knowledge and skills in comparison to those required for the position that they seek. They should develop realistic career goals and objectives for personal and professional growth and development.
Those who hope to attain to chief officer positions must develop necessary knowledge and skills in planning, organizing, directing, controlling, communicating and decision-making. They should prepare to successfully manage and lead their departments.
The importance of combining an appropriate knowledge and skill set based on education and experience can't be overstated. The successful chief officer must possess both the academic preparation and professional experience that correspond with the roles and responsibilities of the new position.
Traditional fire service training must be supplemented by training in management and leadership. There are many developmental opportunities for those who aspire to chief officer positions. There are a wide variety of educational opportunities that will lead to the development of technical, human and conceptual skills. A balance of all three of these essential managerial skills must be attained.
In addition to classroom training programs, there are numerous educational programs available through independent study. Readings from fire service and management publications can be an important developmental tool. Participation in professional organizations, meetings and conferences also can be valuable.
Making the transition
The key to a successful transition to chief officer is recognizing that the change in status will have both professional and personal implications. As a line officer advances to the rank of chief officer, roles and responsibilities within the fire department will significantly differ. This change also will be accompanied by many personal and professional changes and challenges.
Advancement to chief officer typically results in a supervisory relationship between individuals who had been peers within the fire department. In volunteer departments, the newly elected or appointed chief officer may have supervisory authority over those whom they previously served under.
This new relationship can be further affected by resentment within the fire department from those who aspired to but didn't attain the rank of chief officer. The new appointee and the other members of the officer team should recognize the potential of this organizational dynamic and take the necessary actions to address it.
As one advances through the fire department ranks, the significance of external roles increases. Most line officers have primarily internal responsibilities, but as one advances rank, the balance of roles within the department and those outside it typically change. A chief may make presentations to community groups, participate in the municipal budgetary process, and participate in regional or national professional organizations. Balancing these internal and external roles can be one of the most difficult challenges faced by a chief officer.
The greatest barrier to an effective transition from line officer to chief officer is failing to recognize the changes in roles and responsibilities accompanying advancement to a chief officer position. Acknowledging the changing balance of internal and external roles is crucial. The chief officer will typically have limited hands-on performance of tactical activities. The chief officer must effectively delegate responsibility to others within the fire department.
Another barrier to an effective transition occurs when an individual isn't qualified or interested in the position. This situation can result from not really wanting the job, not understanding the job, or not having the necessary knowledge and skills. Frequently those promoted to chief officer positions have extensive technical skills, but lack human or conceptual skills.
Techniques to ensure success
The success of a chief officer is determined by three factors: the chief officer, those supervised by the chief officer and the situation. His or her success is an important determinant of a positive organizational climate within the fire department and the effective and efficient delivery of services to the jurisdiction served by the fire department. The potential for success of the new fire officer is enhanced when every member of the fire department recognizes the important role that they must play in making their department a success.
Fire departments should provide a realistic preview of the roles and responsibilities of a chief officer position to all candidates considering advancement. It's important that those considering service as chief officers be provided with the lay of the land regarding environmental opportunities and threats faced by the fire department.
Fire departments need people with the qualifications and interest in serving as chief officers. They need individuals who are willing to make the personal and professional commitments required of those serving as chief officers. The use of acting positions can be instrumental in allowing the candidate and other members of the fire department to assess readiness for promotion to the chief officer ranks.
Becoming a successful chief officer requires thorough preparation, including education and experience. As fire departments we need chief officers who have demonstrated their commitment to continuous education and who, by their nature, will engage in furthering their knowledge and skills throughout their fire service careers. We need chief officers prepared to empower others within their departments to likewise engage in a continual pursuit of knowledge.
Robert S. Fleming, Ed.D., is a professor of management and management information systems at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. A former fire chief, he has been active in the fire service for nearly 30 years and serves on the Board of Visitors for the National Fire Academy. Fleming is certified as a fire instructor in Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Ed.: In “Rising above the pack,” January, the term “referent power” was incorrectly referred to as “reverent power.” Fire Chief regrets the error.