It's like the farm system, where you're only as good as what you scout.

Look through any of the fire trade magazines, the professional help sections of the Sunday newspaper and on websites such as the IAFC’s Daily Dispatch, Monster or and you will see advertisements for the positions of Fire Chief, Assistant Chief, Deputy Chief and in some cases even for Captains and Lieutenants.

In today’s world, the average tenure of a fire chief is 5 years, in some cases 10. Rarely do you see a Fire Chief at the helm for more than that. Years ago, if a firefighter aspired to the higher ranks, he/she would take the time to study for promotion, investing in some cases thousands of hours of study time and thousands of dollars in buying the required texts, going through promotional schools that teach what to study and how to study and paying the application fees for the exams. They would rise through the ranks and serve the sunset years of their career as the Chief of Department.

The premise for this was to groom the next generation of fire department leader from within the department to take over when the Chief of Department finally called it a career. There has been a trend lately… to hire the next Fire Chief from outside the Department, also known as a “suitcase”. Taking an idea from the corporate world, a community decides to go to the “outside” to find their next fire chief. The corporate CEO can go from running one corporation with ease; and example of this is Alan Mulally, who went from Boeing Aircraft to Ford. A Fire Chief needs to have multiple skill sets: management of a department’s budget and operations as well as being in charge at major incidents.

Much like minor league baseball, developing chief officers is like managing the farm system. (Lloyd Mitchell photo)

Going to the outside for a new Chief is done for a variety of reasons. In some cases, nobody in the FD wants the job. One has to ask why that is the case. Most times, it is because of the politics of the community. Micromanaging mayors, town/city managers and city and town councils are one reason; deep morale problems within the FD are another. In some cases, the community drastically changes the job requirements. Another is to “shake up” a problematic department, which then begs the question “why is there a problem there, and is the problem real or perceived?” Another scenario is a volunteer or combination department looking to hire its first full time Fire Chief

Other parts of this puzzle are the applicants who apply for these positions. Some Chiefs are looking for a change. They have accomplished what they set out to do in their previous departments and are looking for new challenges with larger departments, or they are sick and tired of dealing with micromanaging mayors, town/city managers and city and town councils. Some applicants aspire to be a chief, but there is little or no room for advancement in their present departments.

Some Chiefs consider themselves “fixers”; they come to town to “straighten out problematic fire departments”, then leave when the task is accomplished, looking for the next opportunity. Then you have the “itinerant Chiefs”. They have very impressive resumes that tell search committees that they have lots of “experience”, going from town to town. The question that needs to be asked is “why do they have so much experience?” Is it because they did not get along with their former employer? Did they not get along with the department’s officers and firefighters? Did they try to make their imprint by trashing their new department’ sops/sogs, rules and regulations with ones they brought from their previous department without asking for input from their new Department’s command staff? This type of Chief can take a department that has its act together and toss it into a demoralizing abyss that can take years to get out of, then leave for their next job.

Another part of the equation are the candidates from within who are merely interviewed to make the process look good; using them as one would hire an escort for the evening in an attempt to “legitimize” the selection process.

Don’t get me wrong… I know Chiefs who came from the outside and have done a great job with running their departments. I also know a few very well qualified people who have interviewed for Chief’s jobs that I would follow through the gates of hell and back with nothing more than a garden hose. I also know a few who were disliked and left under a dark cloud.

I guess the moral to this story is… before your community thinks about buying a new suitcase, take a good look to see if the ones you already have will do, and if you need to get a new one, don’t be dazzled because it is full of “stuff”… the stuff may be nothing more than “fluff”.

Caveat Emptor.


Ron Ayotte is a Deputy Chief of the Marlborough (MA) Fire Department and employee to the Support Services division of the Massachusetts Department of Fire Service/Massachusetts Firefighting Academy.

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