Ten Things I’ve Learned in My First Year as a Fire Chief, Part I

By: Chief Susanna Schmitt Williams, Fire Chief, Carrboro (NC) Fire-Rescue


Fire Chief Susanna Schmitt Williams

I just recently finished my first year as a Fire Chief with Carrboro Fire-Rescue in North Carolina.  Below are the first “Five” from my top ten lessons learned that either I learned this past year or had been advice passed on to me by other fire chiefs that I found to be true.

#10.  Set the mutual expectations

So many times I feel not setting expectations results in fragmented efforts for an organization.  Coming to Carrboro as the new fire chief, I did not know the prior work history of my people and they did not know mine.  Day #1 at 0730 hours I met with our command staff—shift commanders and division chief—where I expressed my expectations of them as part of the command staff for the department. I also invited their expectations of me as their new chief.

However, that’s only part of the expectations needed.  Many new chiefs fail to understand the expectations of those they report to (city/town manager, county manager, mayor, fire board, etc.).  Somewhere along the way in the course of my career, I remember a presenter stating that new executives typically fail because they didn’t meet expectations of their supervisors, but rarely are those expectations explicitly stated.

I knew the expectations of a fire chief from my years in the fire service, but I had no clue about the specific expectations of my supervisor.  So I asked, and I asked very early on.  Within my first month with Carrboro, my Town Manager and I had a very frank discussion on what he expected out of the department and me.  I also told him of my expectations of him as my supervisor so the department would be successful.  With clear expectations all around, I was ready to embark on my career as a Fire Chief.

#9. Set the bar high


Listeners learn about the department from Carrboro firefighters during a radio interview with a local radio station.

I made it clear that I set the bar very high for myself and others around me.  I had a brief moment where I thought of lowering the bar, but I quickly removed that thought from my mind.  I kept the bar high and made my people “reach for it” and achieve it. Which meant that I then pushed it even higher!  So my advice to chiefs is: Don’t be afraid to continually raise the bar.  You will be amazed at what can be achieved.

#8. My voice matters

Here’s an interesting thing I have noticed since becoming a Fire Chief.  My voice matters.  I have always been an outside the box thinker who loves to share ideas.  Previously my ideas, suggestions, recommendations frequently went unnoticed.  Ideas I have shared for years now suddenly held tremendous weight.  Nothing has changed in my message, except for my rank.

#7. My people had great ideas

We are so rank conscious in the fire service that I feel it holds us back.  What I learned from my voice not being heard is to solicit feedback and ideas from personnel.  They have great ideas.  We are rocking and rolling moving forward at Carrboro Fire-Rescue and doing some great things in the community.

And guess what, they are not my ideas, not a single one.  They came from our people, most of whom are not chief officers.   My advice is don’t discount the ideas your people bring forward just because of rank.  Actively engage and seek input from everyone.

#6. Relationships matter… alot


Carrboro Relief Drivers Miles and Yates conduct a public education demo for a child’s birthday party at their house.

I inherited an organization where relationships were pretty bad all around; shift to shift, town department to town department, fire department to neighboring fire departments, fire department with community members.  Morale was pretty low.

We have worked so hard over the last year to rebuild these relationships.  It has been amazing to watch what were once strained relationships blossom into great working relationships.  These positive relationships have had such a tremendous impact for the benefit of the community.

The hard work of rebuilding is completed and we now continue to nurture these relationships.  Instead of negative feelings festering and causing “shift wars”, shifts are having conversations about what went wrong and what can we do to fix it.  And these conversations are happening without myself or our Deputy Chief having to step in.

Stayed “tuned” for Lessons #1-5 in next week’s post right here!

I hope those of you who may be recently appointed to Fire Chief or if you are considering a Fire Chief position found this useful.  Keep the conversation going and let me know your similarities to my list and other lessons learned you may have.

In spite of the added stress and responsibility this is still the best d**n job in the world!


About Susanna Schmitt Williams

Susanna Schmitt Williams
Susanna Schmitt Williams is the Fire Chief for the Carrboro Fire-Rescue Department in Carrboro, North Carolina. She has 17 years of experience in the fire service having served as Firefighter, Master Firefighter, Driver Operator/Firefighter, Administrative Captain, Volunteer Program Coordinator, and Division Chief. Chief Williams holds many fire service certifications, has earned two Bachelor degrees and a Master's Degree in Public Administration (concentration in Fire Service Administration). She is currently enrolled in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is working on her CTO credentialing. Chief Williams is also an instructor for the annual FireHouse Software Education Training Seminar and coordinates a regional seminar held annually in Wilmington, NC.