Do We Really Need a Fire Chief?
As our elected officials debate the merits of ‘Wall Street vs. Main Street’ and try their best to fix this national economic mess, local municipal budgets are certainly being impacted. Then the local fire chief leaves, so now what does your community do?
The obvious first answer should be: ‘Hire a new chief!’ There will often be an interim period, because finding a qualified candidate to lead the department is desired. An unfortunate trend is emerging, however, which if left unchecked, has the potential to cause many problems for the fire service.
Recently in Ypsilanti Township, the fire chief left for a new job in Florida. The vacancy has left an acting fire chief while the Township Board searches for a replacement. At the last board meeting, discussions arouse suggesting sharing chief services with neighboring communities. In a similar situation in St. Joe, the fire chief was dismissed as a cost saving measure and now the role is filled by an officer in the police department (working an additional 10 hours), who concedes he doesn’t have time for the job.
So why is it that some communities feel they can operate their fire department without a chief? Is it because of the fire service’s perceived inability to lead at lower and higher levels? Is it because our offices are often separate from City Hall (out of sight out of mind?) Or is it as some suggest, the lack of a professional standard for the position? Would elected officials ever consider running the police department without a chief?
There are many options when filling the role of fire chief and each community will seek a solution that works for their specific situation. For instance, many communities are joining forces through regional fire authorities (Michigan Public Act 57 of 1988 governs this) which may eventually reduce the total number of fire chiefs. The key is of course, that the organization is run by a qualified fire chief.
Certainly, it cannot be overlooked that there are some technical requirements for the position of fire chief at the State level. The question then becomes, if the department does not have a trained fire chief, can he perform the duties as outlined in Public Act 207? If the police chief or acting fire commissioner has not successfully completed Firefighter I & II, let alone Fire Officer I, II, & III and actually have some experience on a fire/emergency scene, can they be the fire chief and fill the role the act requires?
Fire departments across the state require solid leadership that will provide direction to our staff, recommend solid budgets and provide leadership on and off the emergency scene. The role of a professional fire chief requires training, education, and experience.
My questions to you are,
- While Wall Street is figuratively burning, will the reduction of fire chiefs of our communities result in Main Street burning in a very real sense?
- Have we been incorrectly lulled into thinking that a fire chief position in a community is sacred? and
- What can we all, as fire services leaders in Michigan, do to ward off this trend?
Let me know your thoughts on this important topic.