Government Job Profile: Fire Chief

blurred motion fire engine
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The fire chief is the top administrator in a fire department. All firefighters and managers within the department ultimately report to the fire chief. Under the supervision of the city manager or mayor, all budget and personnel authority for the department rests with the chief.

The Selection Process

In cities under the council-manager form of government, the fire chief is selected by and reports to the city manager or an assistant city manager.

In strong mayor cities, the fire chief reports to the mayor. The fire chief is one of the most high-profile department heads in a city, so community input and city council approval is sought in the hiring process. Finalists may be put through several interviews with representatives from various constituencies.

The Education You'll Need

Firefighters aspiring to be a fire chief should find ways to continue their formal education in addition to attending department-sponsored training. Firefighters without bachelor’s degrees should obtain them. Those with bachelor’s degrees should strongly consider a master of public administration degree or another master’s degree specific to fire or emergency management.

The Experience You Need

Candidates should have significant experience working in a fire department. This experience should include regular promotions through the fire department ranks. Proven leadership ability is absolutely critical in dealing all aspects of the job, especially the political and emergency management facets of the position.

What You'll Do

The fire chief is the top dog at the fire department -- unless the department has a dalmatian then the metaphor doesn’t quite hold up.

Public safety departments garner significant media attention. As the person ultimately responsible for the fire department’s operations, the fire chief maintains constant communication with the city manager and public information officers so that the public is kept informed as necessary.

The chief has the ultimate responsibility for expenditures, staffing levels and equipment maintenance. The big boss does not do these things in isolation. Oversight duties are spread appropriately to senior and mid-level department managers.

At emergency scenes the fire chief assumes control of the situation as the highest ranking member of the department. When the chief is not there, that duty falls to the highest ranking department member at the scene.

What You'll Earn

An individual chosen to fill a fire chief position can expect to make a similar salary to other city department heads. In many cases, the fire chief makes more than most other department heads for a given city.

A city’s size is a big factor in how much department heads make. The bigger the city, the more department heads make.

If you really need to know, government employee salaries are public records. It may not be favorably perceived by those involved in the hiring decision for a finalist to make an open records request for salary negotiation purposes. There are many free and purchasable salary studies for high-level government positions.