From our inception, the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) has benefited from participation by diverse groups such as the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). ICMA members serve on the CPSE Board of Directors, Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI), and Commission on Professional Credentialing (CPC).

During the 2022 CPSE Excellence Conference, CPSE CEO Preet Bassi moderated a session with Darin Atteberry, CPSE Board Member and former City Manager Fort Collins, CO; Jesse Lightle, CFAI Vice Chair and Township Administrator Washington Township, OH; and Melissa Stevenson-Diaz, CPC Member and City Manager Redwood City, CA. Titled “Future Leaders through the Eyes of City Managers”, the session provided the panelists perspectives on how to become a fire chief and, once you become a fire chief, how to be successful in the role.

Darin Atteberry

Jessie Lightle

Melissa Stevenson Diaz

To ensure the session met the needs of conference attendees, a survey was sent prior to the conference to garner ideas for questions to pose to the panelists. Thirty-six individuals responded to the survey and suggested over ninety questions. Working collaboratively, the moderator and panelists crafted twelve questions that would provide actionable insights to attendees based on survey input.

What actions can individuals interested in future fire chief positions take to further their potential?

Reflecting on this question, Jesse highlighted three points: education, professional development, and volunteerism. At Washington Township, they start early on asking employees about their educational pursuits and career goals. As an instructor in a local Master in Public Administration program, she commented that she was glad to see more fire and emergency service members participating as such programs provide high level perspectives which are useful as one progresses in their career. Leadership programs, such as one offered by the Center for Local Government, are excellent professional development opportunities. Lastly, volunteering for projects within the municipality provides exposure for those interested in future fire chief positions as well as the chance to begin to build partnerships.

What are common challenges you see individuals face when transitioning into senior leadership roles?

Darin began by sharing that senior leadership roles require individuals to move beyond tactical work and considerations. However, since there are times when a fire chief needs to “zoom in” while also knowing when to “zoom out,” he commented that the shift in focus and when to do so can be difficult for new senior leaders. A new hat that fire chiefs may not know they will need to wear is that of community advisor. For those that wish to solely be the fire chief, the need to devote considerable time to the community can be challenging. Those transitioning into senior leadership roles may underestimate the workload. He ended by sharing that “leadership can be lonely” as fire chiefs often must make decisions that are not popular.

What are the differentiators you look for when selecting candidates to interview for a fire chief’s position?

Reflecting on his work with five chiefs throughout his career, Darin shared the following differentiators when selecting candidates to interview:

  • Deep commitment to continuous improvement
  • Demonstrated experience of big and innovative thinking
  • Proven support for community goals not just fire and emergency service department needs
  • Demonstrated commitment to both culture and strategy
  • Nontraditional professional development

How does diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging impact your decisions regarding fire service leadership?

Melissa shared with the attendees that 25 years ago a female city manager first hired her. As a result, she was, at first, surprised that Redwood City, upon her hiring, made a big deal about her being their first female city manager. However, through conversations with employees she came to see that representation does matter having been approached by women within her organization who now feel that they too could be city manager one day. Therefore, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) are critical factors to her when selecting department heads. She wants to ensure that fire chiefs can help her build a culture that meets all employees’ needs. Demonstrated experience in DEIB work allows her to see a candidates’ ability to help her build an inclusive culture.

What are your expectations for fire chiefs collaborating with other department heads to achieve collective municipal goals?

Jesse highlighted her high expectations for collaboration by sharing a story of the challenges stemming from silos when she came to Washington Township fifteen years ago, and comparing it to the current positive team environment that has permitted extensive organizational progress. She acknowledged that collaboration is not always easy and may, at times, require giving us some autonomy. She also referenced potential boulders (i.e., difficult people) and expect that fire chiefs will rise above or go around the boulder to meet the goals of the community.

Why is the role of the fire chief as the face of the department so critical?

Melissa addressed the importance of the fire chief as the face of the department for both internal and external audiences. Department members need to know the fire chief’s priorities and values which can only be achieved through face time. During this time together, the fire chief should listen and involve members. Likewise, community members need to know the department’s priorities as they relate to city priorities. Community members will also want to share their priorities for the department with the fire chief. She cautioned that if the fire chief is unwilling to take on this active engagement, someone else may fill that void that has less perspective on the fire department.

What advice they have for those in the room that may be considering what their next career step should be?

All three panelists responded to this question recommending the following:

  • Be aware of the motivations behind your desire for a career change
  • Consider your current personal commitments and what would be the tradeoffs if you decided to take a next career step toward being a fire chief
  • Consider your personal values and how they align with your current or any future workplace
  • Network – not just to find a job, but to gather valuable insight from someone you admire
  • Know that it is ok not to want to be the fire chief and that deputy/assistant chief roles are vital for organizational success and progress

The hour-long panel was a resounding success, with attendees reaching out to panelists after the conference for their continued advice on either how to get a job as a fire chief or how to be successful once you get the role.

Click here to listen to the full panel discussion or right-click to download (1 hour, 144 mb MP4).