Ten Lessons Learned During my First Year as Fire Chief, Part II

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


Chief Schmitt Williams is a graduate of the Fire Service Executive Development Institute. She’s continuing her professional develop in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program.

So welcome back! Last week I shared with you the first five of my 10 Lessons Learned During My First Year as Fire

Chief. Here are the remaining five lessons I learned.

#5. Leadership matters

Be a leader not just a manager. Model the behavior you expect to see. Empower people to make decisions befitting their rank. When firefighters and officers are given the freedom to do this with the expectation that they make decisions supporting the mission, vision, and values of the department and the town an amazing thing happens, they do the right thing every time.

What is even more amazing is they coach and mentor those coming behind them to make decisions in the same way. Lead by modeling, coaching, and inspiring. Don’t manage by policy, mandates, and the disciplinary process. Positive words take an organization so much further and effect much more change than negative words ever will.

#4. Core values MUST match


Wall mural on Carrboro Fire-Rescue Station promoting awareness for the plight of the honey bee. #ForTheGoodOfTheHive

Your personal core values must match the values of the community you serve. If they don’t, there will be a disconnect making your job much harder. Carrboro is a wonderful community committed to social equality and is a place where everyone is welcome. Rainbow flags fly at our town hall in support of our LGBT community. We have a bee mural being painted on the side of our town’s fire station to bring attention to the plight of the honey bee.

As you can imagine, there are some in the department who aren’t as supportive of the town’s values. If the Carrboro’s values didn’t match mine, I am sure I would not be modeling how to be supportive of the town’s mission, vision, and values. Moreover, if my values did not match those of Carrboro, I am sure it would be a struggle being the fire chief in Carrboro.

My advice is, wherever you become fire chief you must support the municipality’s values. When they match your personal values, it’s a better relationship and so much easier to do the job you were hired to do.

#3. My mental health matters

Being Fire Chief brings a stress level that I am not sure can even be described. It’s a weight that can have a profound impact the  decisions you make affect the citizens your serve and your people and their families.

As a fire chief, especially in smaller departments like Carrboro, you wear many hats adding to the stress level. It is vital that as a fire chief you protect your mental health. Have confidants that you can vent to (Gripes always go upward—Saving Private Ryan).

Have interests outside the fire service that serve as a stress release; for me, I started Jazz Piano about a year ago to supplement my thirty some years of playing classical piano. My department knows, every Thursday at lunch I am at my instructor’s house for a piano lesson; don’t disturb me unless the world is falling apart.

#2. My health and physical fitness matter

How quickly the hours go by in a day with all there is to do. It is very easy for physical fitness or healthy eating choices

Carrboro Fire-Rescue, "A" Shift, taking a break from live fire training.

Carrboro Fire-Rescue, “A” Shift, taking a break from live fire training.

to go by the wayside. If we as chiefs are not healthy, physically fit, and at the top of our mental game how can we make the best choices for the department. More importantly,  how can we expect our people to make health and fitness a priority if we don’t?

And the #1 Lesson Learned…Family First

Put your family first. Family vacations must be a priority; and it must be family time where you are engaged with the family, not answering work emails and phone calls. Daily family time must be a priority (evenings and weekends). Do not put your loved ones on the back burner.

I made a promise to myself that barring any evening meetings I would be home for dinner with my sons by 6:00 p.m. at the latest. I put them on the bus each morning with a hug and a kiss. I tuck them in every night that I can.

Mom runs out on the occasions when the pager goes off, sometimes Mom has late evenings, and sometimes Mom has early mornings, BUT when I’m home, I’m Mom. I check the phone one last time before I retire for the night. Here’s why: I know if it’s bad, the shift commander or telecommunications will call. I don’t need to check the phone 24/7.

I also urge those around me to put family first. If their cell phones buzz while we are meeting I encourage them to

The Schmitt Williams family.

The Schmitt Williams family.

answer if it’s family. When family emergencies arise, we send our folks home to deal with it; we find coverage for them.

When we make shift changes we talk with the people involved to see if there are any life events coming up that we need to be aware of. If so, we make sure that they will have their time off request approved before they move to their new assignment. If need be the department pays OT to cover if this puts us below minimum staffing. We let staff take trucks to their kids games in district. Family first – we live it and as leaders we model it.

I hope those of you who have recently been appointed to Fire Chief, or if you are considering becoming a Fire Chief, have found these two blogs 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!

Contact Chief Schmitt at swilliams@townofcarrboro.org

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About 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.