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Why There Is a Leadership Vacuum in Many Fire Departments

This article originally appeared on EDM Digest.

By Dr. Randall HanifenFaculty Member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University

I often hear my colleagues discuss the dearth of younger personnel involved in leadership and in extracurricular activities related to the fire service. I also hear newer personnel complain that we have leadership “dinosaurs” in positions that have not been relevant in years.

So why do we have a leadership vacuum in our profession? How did this situation occur and what are the possible solutions?

Stages of a Firefighter’s Career

Firefighters have many stages in their career and life. These stages are marked by some responsibilities and activities that either lend to or detract from leadership and extracurricular activities.

For instance, when we enter the fire service, often in our 20s, we are full of energy. We are looking to learn all about the best profession in the world.

Through the internet or at various events, we seek out opportunities to learn new ideas or strengthen our initial training. At this point, we are not thinking about leadership, but about learning.

Next, by our late 20s and early 30s, we have a significant other and possibly children. Now we have many competing interests for our time, mainly our family.

At this point, many firefighters take a second or side job, which increases their income and helps to offset the increased expenses of having a family. At this point, it’s difficult just meeting all of the family and financial obligations.

Later, when we move to our late 30s and early 40s, we’re saving for our children’s college education and attending their school and community functions.

We have kept that second job to meet all our extra costs and to save as much as possible because college tuition has skyrocketed. But within the organization, there have been one or more promotional opportunities.

Many firefighters might think, “I will wait; I am not ready.” Later, they find that someone less qualified or capable is promoted to fill the leadership vacuum instead of them.

Toward the end of our firefighting careers, we want to leave a legacy and we now have some time to work toward that goal. Many firefighters become more involved in their organization even though they still find it difficult to do so. That’s because many opportunities for leadership beyond the official capacity of a fire department require money to participate in these activities. With decreasing budgets and increasing payrolls, the travel budget of many organizations is limited.

Differing Perspectives from Different Generations

Until you reach your late 40s and beyond, you won’t always have the time or resources to participate in leadership outside your organization. It is this age group that creates the “old guys” perception of many leadership organizations in the fire service.

Because this group often comprises the boards of many of the training and education experiences in the fire service, those who attend these classes think you must be nearly retired to lead to other irefighters. Who can blame younger people for thinking this way, when they see so many people who are nearing retirement or are retired?

The mentality that board members and instructors “should have retired many years ago” is fueled by many great people in our profession who do not have any outside interests beyond the fire department. I am somewhat guilty of this thinking myself because I find enjoyment and fulfillment participating in fire service leadership functions.

I am not sure how I will disconnect when retirement comes in a few years. Luckily, our pension system’s deferred retirement option caps the number of years you can participate, so my exit date from the firefighting service will be set for me.

How Do We Avoid a Leadership Vacuum?

Increased involvement in the fire service is a two-way street. One way is your personal responsibility to step up and be a part of the leadership. While you may not think you are ready for a leadership role, you are always ready for more involvement.

Just because you do not have a board seat does not preclude you from working on projects related to the organization. I do not know of any board member who does not think they have enough help to accomplish all of their objectives. If you wait until you think you are ready, that time may never come.

The other side of the equation is for each board member to be on the lookout for a mentee. While many board members are comfortable with their positions and do not want to leave it, we owe it to the next generation to invite them to work on projects and build their involvement.

That practice will allow younger members to gain the experience to take vacated board member spots so they don’t leave a leadership vacuum. That is a tough but necessary idea to swallow for many of the older generations.

One of my next adventures will be to develop a networking organization for retirees. This organization will help perform some of the advocacy work needed in the fire service. It will be coupled with peer-to-peer networking to allow retirees to remain part of the fire service.

Remember, we are all just passing though the fire service and must do our part to ensure there is not a leadership vacuum. Step up early and once you are a leader, begin to look for your replacement.

leadership vacuumAbout the Author: Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a Shift Captain for the West Chester Fire Department in Ohio and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the Executive Chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a Taskforce Leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the Vice-Chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a Fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. To contact the author, send an email to For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

Dr. Randall Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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