Climbing the Ladder: From Officer to Chief


While reading Barry Daskal’s article, “Captain: The First 60 Days” (Fire Engineering, October 2009), I realized that I had done or wished that I had used many of the ideas Daskal presented to help new chiefs. Afterward, while talking to some members, we realized there were no ideas out there that would help a new officer work his way up to the ranks of lieutenant, then to captain, and finally to chief. Many basic ideas can be carried from start to the finish; you can make some changes to them as you move up through the ranks, but the core values, ideas, and ways to ascend to the office will always be the same.

This article’s ideas, values, and directions will help guide you through the many years of being a fire officer. It does not matter if you work in a fivestation department that runs more than 1,000 alarms or a small hometown department with two trucks that runs fewer than 100 alarms; things are no different. The people and issues are always the same.


First, have a plan. Being a fire officer does not come with a global positioning system (GPS) to tell you where to turn, how long the journey will take, and if you will hit traffic. It is more like taking a long trip at a time when you needed to get a map, plan your route, and adjust for detours and traffic as you drive. Although using a GPS for a road trip may be easy, it is done without any thought, planning, or effort; it may even take you down the wrong path. The old triedandtrue method of using a map and plan works best. If you don’t have a plan, you will not know where to go or how to get there.

With today’s new technology such as laptops, smartphones, and so on, there is something to be said for doing things “old school.” Grab a steno pad and write down what you need to accomplish and purchase and what you consider to be your goals—short term, long term, and nice to accomplish tasks and changes. They could be more drills, a new type of drill, equipment purchases, standard operating guideline (SOG) updates, or general plans and organization to improve your department.

Begin your “todo” list by placing a line alongside each task. Once you start the task, circle it; when it’s done, cross it off. Although this sounds very simplistic, it works: You know your goals for the day; what you’ve started/finished; and, more importantly, what you could not get to. Write down a list of people you have called and their numbers, important things that happened during the day, and so on. Start the next day by looking at the previous day’s list, and begin the tasks you did not complete.

These lists will help you plan and organize your time and prioritize the things you want or need to complete. Now, you may not need a list for every day, but some days/nights or events will require a single list. Also, do not keep your normal running list for longer than two weeks. If the tasks you have listed cannot be completed in a twoweek period, consider them longterm projects. If you cannot complete many of the tasks on the list, you will most likely need to break them into smaller pieces—just like at a fire.

As the weeks, months, and even years pass, you will have an invaluable list of names and numbers of people you will most likely work with for years to come; events; and, most importantly, accomplishments. If you ever feel as if you are tired, down, or not getting anything done, look at your list to quell these feelings.

All officers—from the firsttime lieutenant all the way up to the chief—should find a personal confidant. This person could be your spouse, priest, and best friend all in one. You won’t know how important a person like this is until you need one. Share your deepest thoughts, dreams, ideas, and fears without the apprehension that the person will share them with others, laugh at you, or use them against you. If the confidant is in your station, it is best if he is not your boss or vice versa. You want and need an honest answer, not a “Yes” because you are his boss or a “No” because he is your boss. He doesn’t need to work in your station, but he needs to be in the fire service to understand technical aspects. For leadership, use anyone you look up to as a good leader. The traits of a good leader will carry over. The confidant will be the goto guy from whom you can always get the honest answer. You might not like what you hear, but it will be honest. You can take or leave the advice, but it will be a clean, clear, and unbiased view. As you move forward in your fire service career, you might be asked to be a member’s confidant. Remember, pay it forward, be honest and truthful, and offer all the support you can.

Take ownership for the good things you do and, more importantly, your mistakes. Mistakes happen; it is part of learning, growing, and improving. When—not if—you make a mistake, own up to it. In the past, the more quickly I owned up to a mistake, the more quickly the situation improved. When I did not quickly take ownership of a mistake, things got worse. In many cases throughout history, the coverups became bigger than the crime itself.

Just as you should not cover up your mistakes, do not cover up mistakes for your leaders or the people you lead. I have covered up incidents for people; to this day, I am not proud of those actions. At the time, it felt right. However, it was not the right thing to do; it was the easy way out.


Become a better officer by being a student of the fire service. Learn by reading training magazines; attending training conferences; picking people’s brains; asking questions; and being strong enough to say, “I don’t know, but I will find out.” An officer who completes ONLY the required classes for his position and does not continue his education is not a good fire officer. The minimum requirements for your slot in the service are just the beginning, the bottom. Times change, new equipment comes out, new and better techniques are found, and changes in building construction are made. If you do not learn them, you place yourself and your crew at greater risk; you and your company will not move forward.

Ask questions of senior members around your station, your class instructors, and even book and magazine authors. Most, if not all, authors will reply to emails and Web contacts.


As the new lieutenant, what are your jobs and tasks? Most likely, they are drills, truck/station duty, and perhaps gathering information for purchases. You may also be assigned to care for one of the station’s apparatus. Remember, you might prefer engine work over truck work or think the rescue or squad is where it’s at, but if you are not assigned to your “piece,” it does not matter. You need to know your apparatus inside and out—how it works, how each tool works, and ideas on how to improve the truck. After the alarm sounds and a member needs to find a tool, pull the right line, or raise the ladder, you are the first guy he will turn to for help or answers. It is your engine, truck, or rescue.

Very early on in your assignment, remove each piece of equipment and clean and test it. There is no better way to see where everything is and how it works and is maintained. Take an inventory on what is where and maybe even why it is there. The inventory specs and locations will lock into your mind.

Keep your truck in service, clean, and organized. If your company sees you completing your equipment checks, maintaining the tools, keeping the truck clean, and generally caring about your responsibilities, you will earn respect quickly and receive the assistance that all officers need.


Learn how the rules and SOGs affect your actions, and follow them accordingly. If you don’t follow them, the people you lead also will not. If the older engine is seconddue at a motor vehicle accident (MVA), don’t take the newer engine. If you don’t don your personal protective equipment (PPE) for each alarm, you can’t expect the membership to do the same. If you drive to the station too fast, your members won’t drive safely to the station, let alone call in a 30,000pluspound engine or a 75,000pound tower ladder. The list can go on. In other words, lead by good example. Don’t be the example.

After many years as a lieutenant, you may move up to captain. Depending on your department, you might be the lead officer of one piece of equipment or the entire truck room. So, your new challenge will be to know each piece of equipment in the company—what it can do, the location of all pieces of equipment, and how the equipment works and is maintained. You are the last and only goto guy. You must be able to drive and operate each vehicle, tool, and device.

As captain, you must be able to lead and train the entire company, from the newest guy to the past chief with 20plus years of experience. So, you will have to adjust your teaching styles. To keep the more seasoned guys involved, have them help teach the new members in small breakout groups on how to hit a hydrant, pull a line, or throw a ladder. This gives the new members some different perspectives, gives you a break, and gives the seasoned members a role. It will show the veterans you trust their knowledge and experience.

Be prepared to teach; know the night’s drill and each skill it requires. Refresh your memory from a training handbook, old notes, or a past class. Many areas have instructor and trainthetrainer classes to help sharpen your skills and teaching methods.


There will be times when you will be the first step in the command structure; you will have to take a step back and be the leader—not the doer. One of the reasons you became an officer was that you were technical minded, that you liked to get your hands dirty, and so you could be in the mix at every alarm. But as the captain, you are now the highest company officer—the boss of the handson work, leading the line, managing the search, or planning the extrication. This does not mean that you have to be the one on the line, searching, or operating the tool. Understanding this was one of the largest problems I and other officers had to work through.

Prepare yourself to be the incident commander. You must learn to pull back and let your members do their jobs. If or when there is a problem, step in. There will be alarms where the chiefs will either be delayed or not be there at all. You will need to be able to complete a sizeup, request assistance, and coordinate the operations at hand. Once you understand the incident command system, you will be able to manage your incident. Additionally, continue your education: Take some more advanced leadership and building construction classes, and keep current with changes in both tactics and equipment.


You are now wearing the gold. You have the white hat, the red lights, and the sirens. You’ve made it to the top; you are one of a very small and elite club. With very few exceptions, you are now hands off; you will not be on the line, climbing the ladder, or working the tools. It is a very difficult change; you will now pull up to the incident and, instead of running in the front door, you are walking around the house to size up and transmit conditions and assignments.

Remember, the people you are leading are your friends and fellow members. You may like some and dislike others, but you are all firefighters, and YOU are responsible for their safety and wellbeing.

Being the boss is similar to being a parent. You want to get along, but that is not always possible. You are not there to be a friend. You are there to be a boss, a leader—a chief. You do not have to divorce yourself from all social aspects, but you need to draw the line.

If you want to complete your plan (todo list), you will need assistance. Share your plan with your officers, and get their feelings, ideas, and buyin. Once you get a buyin, the plan can happen. The work can be divided and broken down into workable single tasks that will shorten the completion time. The number of hours may be the same or more, the plan may not be completed exactly the way you want it, but once you put all the parts together, you will have your completed project, and your members will know that they made something happen.

Being the chief means making some difficult choices and, maybe, needed changes that some might not support. Big changes do not happen quickly or easily and differ from department to department. Therefore, think out how, when, and to whom you want to present these changes. The change could range from the color of your PPE or trucks to the type of trucks you purchase. You will need help, but you must be careful about who knows your plans. Secrets are not the way to run a department, but there are times when you do not want the entire force to know a plan until it is ready. Talk with and feel out some of your officers and see how they feel about your changes. If they approve, have them help you. If there are members who may work against you, do not ask them to be part of the project.

Before you present a plan to your department, commissioners, or town, do research. Know the questions that will be asked so you can answer them. If what you are presenting is what is best, present it well, and you can make it happen.

Know the rules and SOGs, and enforce them; most importantly, follow them yourself. All eyes are on you. If you expect your firefighters to wear their seat belts, not to speed while driving, and don PPE, you must do these things all the time. If you speed past the station or walk in the middle of the road at a nighttime MVA without PPE, you are a poor leader and are setting yourself and others up for failure.

The adage that you are only as good as the people working for you is very true. In most cases, you cannot pick your officers. To be effective, you must have hardworking, supportive, knowledgeable, and honest officers and members around you. Determine and work with their abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. If one is not pulling his weight, is causing friction, or is working against you behind the scenes, address the issue quickly.

In one instance, I addressed a problem quickly and, in the end, removed an officer. In another, I did not, and the situation only got worse. It is a difficult fact that some people are one sided. Continue your path, and plan; in the end, you will be able to sleep at night.


There are three broad, separate but interconnected facets of your life outside the firehouse: your home (and family), your job (the paying one), and your personal life. If one or more of these facets are in chaos, your performance at the firehouse will reflect it.

Your family and paying job must come before the firehouse. Not being able to pay bills or spend enough time with your family will affect your performance at the station. If your spouse or kids need you, you must be there; the station will survive without you for a day or a night. The fine balance between all facets of your life will affect your ability to lead. Never forget it, and remember to tell your family and your members how much you need and appreciate their support. You could not do it without them.


While you are busy with alarms, personnel firehouse issues, and training and equipment mandates, remember to enjoy being a member of the fire department. It is a calling that not many have heeded and even fewer can do, let alone as an officer or a chief.

Once you move up, it can be difficult to remember how much fun you have had. As time passed after my term as chief, I could look back and say that I enjoyed my time as an officer in the departments I have served.

Thanks to Jerry and Toph for their help in writing this article.

TIM PILLSWORTH is a former chief of the Winona Lake Engine Company, Orange Lake Fire District in Newburgh, New York. He is the author and coauthor of many articles on personal protective equipment (PPE), volunteering, and engine company operations and testing. He wrote the PPE chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II. Pillsworth is a project engineer for the Army Corp of Engineers in West Point, New York.

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