Fire Chiefs—New Roles, New Images

Fire Chiefs— New Roles, New Images


Times are changing, the fire service is changing, and the fire chief is being asked to change to fit these changes. It’s a challenge. Whether it’s a positive or negative challenge depends on the individual fire chief.

Is the fire chief a vanishing breed?

Traditionally seen as a public protector, today’s fire chief is being called on to fill a number of different roles, from department manager and administrator, to budget director and new programs innovator. City managers, unions, citizens, even fire fighters are demanding more from fire department leaders, and new images of the fire chief as a wheeler-dealer, a goldbrick, a spendthrift are coming to the forefront.

“The question ‘Is the fire chief a vanishing breed?’ should be a concern of all chiefs,” warned Douglas Harman, city manager of Alexandria, Va., at the 110th annual conference of the IAFC. “The fire service has a tremendous challenge, and the fire chief is the key to meeting this challenge. In your hands rests the ability to turn these poor images around and bring back the image of professionalism.”

The best way to reinforce the image of professionalism is by cultivating a team approach, says Harman. The importance of establishing good working relationships among alt emergency service personnel was stressed throughout the convention.


Perhaps the most prominent move toward this interaction is illustrated by the Integrated Emergency Management System (IEMS).

Expected to be implemented in fiscal year 1984, IEMS, developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), emphasizes an integrated approach to managing all potential emergencies (including natural disasters, technological hazards, resource shortages and possible attack).

IEMS is not to be considered a substitute for comprehensive emergency management (CEM), but rather a process for implementing it.

CEM is a broad all-hazards concept that encompasses various emergencies and addresses each emergency in terms of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery activities. IEMS takes this concept a step further by addressing the development of these preparedness and response elements common to all emergencies (such as evacuation, shelter, communications, direction and control, continuity of government, resource management, and law and order). However, IEMS also recognizes that there are certain elements unique to specific situations, thereby achieving a stronger readiness capability core.

According to a FEMA report, actual experience has shown that evacuation plans drawn up for one type of emergency can be used effectively in another emergency. “An important thrust of IEMS will be to develop all-hazard evacuation plans tailored to the threats specific to a given community,” reads the report.

Chief Gordon Bentley of Mississauga, Ont., recalled the largest peacetime evacuation in North American history. This was brought about when 24 train cars derailed in the heart of Mississauga, touching off a major chemical fire that forced the evacuation of 217,000 people over 20 square miles. With all emergency service personnel working as a combined unit, 10,000 people per hour were moved to safety.

Initial emphasis of IEMS will be placed on basic emergency preparedness capabilities (planning, warning, communications, control and identification of required resources), particularly at local levels. Louis O. Giuffrida, director of FEMA, stated that “The ultimate responsibility for emergency planning and response rests, as it should, at the local level. Because the fire, emergency medical, law enforcement, and emergency preparedness services are critical to the IEMS approach, it is important that the requirements/constraints associated with the implementation and utilization of IEMS by these services by identified and met.”

IEMS is expected to result in a more complete partnership between federal, state and local governments, with increased flexibility to structure plans suitable to unique geographical or population-related needs. This will strengthen our national capacity to manage any type of peacetime or wartime emergency, according to the FEMA report.

However, “The ultimate success of IEMS depends on you,” said Fred Villella, FEMA’s associate director of training and fire programs. “Unless we are on the threshhold of cooperation, this program will not work.”

Budgets, power, egos, authority symbols, all impede the ability to work together. IEMS demands participation, direction and communication from all emergency service sectors.

Fire chief/public manager

Tradition. Described as a continuity in attitudes and institutions, the fire service at one time symbolized the very word tradition. Now, however, the fire service is threatened by interlopers in the form of new technologies, consolidations, IEMS, etc.

“Change is one thing the world is sure about. No one is immune from it. It is inevitable, and it hurts.” Costis Toregas, vice-president of Public Technology Inc. in Washington, D.C., hosted a panel discussion on the fire chief’s changing role and how this new role can be used to benefit the fire service.

“The fire service doesn’t own the fire problem, Toregas said. “A community-wide effort is required to solve the problem, and the fire chief has to be more what the public expects—a public manager.”

Chief Thomas Hawkins of the Arlington County, Va., Fire Department suggested that fire chiefs look upon themselves as executives of a service corporation and do the best job they can for the public by managing the community’s resources. “It’s especially important for those running municipal and volunteer fire departments to take the lead and evaluate the old and new ways of fulfilling responsibilities to communities.”

Traditionally, fire chiefs took a fire fighter/fire chief role, with the incentive on fire suppression. Now, fire chiefs are called on to get involved on fire prevention and fire education as well. Chief Michael D. McGibeny of the Daytona Beach, Fla., Fire Department suggested developing “the fine art of delegation. By delegating activities traditionally done by the fire chief (such as recruitment, equipment recommendations, training, etc.), everyone gets involved and the fire chief is freed for the more important tasks, such as meeting with city managers.”

Delegating assignments and authority enables the chief to set up networks and a broader base of support throughout the community. This support base can often help in instances “when your ability is challenged,” said McGibeny. “You may find some allies; and a better opportunity to live up to your ‘image.'”

With the changing demands being made on the fire service, fire chiefs must control their own destinies, basically, said Robert Ely, director of the IAFC Task Force on Alternative Tasks for the Fire Service, all public officials, including fire chiefs, are aiming for the same goals, “It’s just we are all taking different paths to achieve them, and our efforts have to be coordinated.”

Bringing about this coordination can be the key to the fire chief securing a leading role as public manager and strengthening the fire service in the community. Some suggestions Ely made was for fire departments to take on the job of EMS; to “make sure you have something to say about police/fire consolidation”; to get together with other departments to share or swap equipment and to order equipment jointly to save money; to have a say in decisions made by building departments; the list goes on.

No one said filling the new role, the new image of today’s fire chief is easy. It’s not. It can be demanding, disagreeable and, sometimes, distressing. But, as one speaker noted, “The fire service is made up of those people willing to take that one step beyond.”

New officers

The 110th annual IAFC conference drew a total of 2102 delegates from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Japan, Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy.

Douglas Pollington of the Cambridge, Ont., Fire Department was elected IAFC president; Gerard A. Carle of the Dracut, Mass., Fire Department was elected first vice-president; Ben Vossenaar of the Rotterdam, Netherlands, Fire Department was elected second vice-president; and A. W. Conners of the Farmington, N.M., Fire Department was elected treasurer.

Next year’s conference, Sept. 30 through Oct. 3, will be hosted by the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

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