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A successful succession

Adorned on the walls of most fire stations are photos of past and current members. Whether they are formal portraits with firefighters in their best dress or photos of a department’s members in action serving the community, it is a visual recognition of the incredible commitment and sacrifice that our members make every day.

Displayed on the wall outside our main office entrance are the photos of all Brooklyn Park fire chiefs, dating all the way back to our first chief, Orris Aldrich, who led the department beginning in 1957. I am incredibly honored to be displayed alongside such great leaders who were responsible for laying the foundation of our organization. They – like every member who has served – have left an imprint on our organization and culture.

While my photo is currently the last in the series of chief portraits, I know it is not the last. It is fairly evident that there is space for another photo right below mine. There will undoubtably be another picture – another chief – on that wall.  It isn’t a matter of if, but rather of when. Until that time, it is my duty, my sworn oath, to lead this organization and to uphold the values of my badge and the profession.

I am very confident that our next chief is in our existing ranks. As the current chief, it is one of my personal goals to ensure that I create the environment, culture, and opportunities to ensure that this can happen.  I want nothing more than to see every member of our organization flourish, and to have career advancement opportunities in the department they care so much about.

I have talked to many fire chiefs that have said something to the effect of, “there isn’t anyone willing or ready to take my job.” This is often coupled with a dwindling membership overall – a struggle that many volunteer organizations face across Minnesota and the country. 

Coincidentally, I have talked to many firefighters and line officers throughout my career that are frustrated that their senior chief officers are “retired on-duty;” they are begging for turnover at the highest levels to bring in new ideas, generate fresh growth, and lead the organization in a new direction. Like it or not, most fire chiefs have a shelf-life. Having a pulse on your organization and a keen sense of self-awareness will help determine if that expiration date is approaching, or long passed.

As fire service leaders, it is critical that we develop strategies for succession planning.  This is both an informal and formal process.  Providing meaningful and impactful training, professional development, and continuing education opportunities is a foundational element to growing future leaders.  Invite and encourage your up-and-coming leaders to attend professional conferences, such as the MSFCA conference, FDIC, or Firehouse Expo. While there are certainly meaningful learning and networking opportunities for the fire chief to attend a national conference, it shouldn’t always be just the fire chief going. You’re already the top dog. Afford your staff the opportunities for professional growth and empower them to share knowledge with the rest of the organization.

Succession planning should be rooted into the DNA of your organization. The employees that you hire (volunteer or career) should reflect the core values of your organization. When a member is promoted, there should never be any surprises or questioning as to their alignment with the organization’s values. If this is the case, there is clearly a misalignment either with the organization’s values (real or perceived) or performance management.  This, however, should not be confused with peer popularity. The person you hire today may eventually be sitting in the chair you are now. Choose wisely.

Successful succession planning is a process of continuous improvement and effort. It is not something to start when you post your retirement countdown clock on your fridge or begin consulting with your financial advisor on when to pull your relief pension. For the fire chief, this should be occurring on a frequent basis through training, development, coaching, and performance management.  If obstacles or roadblocks exist – including concerns about if there is anyone willing or able to step into your role eventually – I would encourage having open and honest discussions with your supervisor.

While I look forward to many great years ahead serving in my current role as a fire chief, I am most excited about watching the personal and professional growth of those I lead. When the day comes that I hand my badge over to my successor, I will rest assured that I left the organization in a better place than when I came.  

As I enter my final year and round-out my third (and last) term as President of the MSFCA, I too will be focused on succession planning and helping to lay the foundation for the future.  If you are looking to get involved, please reach out to myself, a MSFCA board member, or our office. We need great people like you!

Note: this article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

A chief’s greatest responsibility

As a firefighter progresses through the ranks of organizational management, the layers of responsibility become heavier and arguably more complex.  The insignia pinned on the collar brass signifies the formal rank of the position; those in our profession have an inherit understanding of the responsibilities with each step of the paramilitary structure that is deeply rooted in fire service tradition. A lieutenant or captain, for example, have direct, front-line management responsibilities of a single company, station, or program.  Battalion, district, deputy, division, or assistant chiefs inherit more complex responsibilities that are more strategic in nature. Budgeting, accounting, performance management, data analysis, and hiring are just some of the items that chief officers begin to handle as they progress higher in their organization. Often serving as a senior department director, the fire chief is the most senior person, serving as the chief executive officer of the organization and is responsible for the strategic direction of the organization.

The omission of the word leadership in the previous paragraph was intentional. You don’t have to hold an officer title to be a leader; although I would certainly argue that one needs to be a leader to be an officer. This is not to be confused with popularity. I have met many popular firefighters, but I wouldn’t even trust them leading me to fight a defensive fire on a smoldering porta-potty let alone a raging inferno.   You can’t claim to be a leader if no one is following. I have never seen a championship football team where only the coach is standing on the field; it requires the efforts of every player to be successful.

Brooklyn Park Firefighter Cadet graduation ceremony.

Just like football, the fire service is a team sport. Every member of the team plays an important role. Their moves are well calculated; preplanning both on and off the field is combined with rigorous rehearsal.  A star athlete must have the willingness and drive to prepare their body for most physical demanding job which is often carried out in only a matter of seconds. Once the play is underway, there is no going back. The players must react based on not only the movements of their own team but more importantly their opponent.  When the play is done, the team huddles again to come up with a new plan. After the game, the coaches and players get together to review their performance and to make improvements for the next game. Even when not on the field, the athlete is in a constant state of preparedness. Hours, days, weeks, and even months of training go into preparing the athletic for the next game.

Behind the scenes are thousands of people working tirelessly to support the team, their players, and fans.  This includes coaches, trainers, janitors, human resources, guest services, media and communications, drivers, security, and engineers. Just to name a few.

Every person – from the star player to the support staff around them – is incredibly important to the success of the team.

As a fire chief, the most important asset to your team are your players.  Modern fire trucks, stations, radios, and all of the tools we use on a daily basis are important, they are essentially meaningless until you first have a strong team. The success of the team is dependent on the performance of each individual member.  To build a successful team, you first must select the best players. Their character, drive, passion, commitment, and alignment with your team’s values will enable the coaches and trainers to develop them into star athletes.

As I approach 25 years of service as a firefighter, I have had the opportunity to serve at every level within the organization.  I vividly remember taking to the field as a new firefighter and gaining experience and knowledge from the veteran players around me.  While I may not be on the field running the play, I consider my role today to be even more important than ever.

I have the best members on the team.

Note: this article appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

The Great Resignation and Its Impact on the Fire Service

When COVID-19 restrictions across the country began to lift, restaurants started preparing delicious meals, store shelves were being stocked again, and office lights were gradually being turned on.  Despite the enthusiasm and optimism to return to a “new normal,” a big problem began to emerge: people weren’t coming back to work.

While scholars and economics are still debating the root causes of what has been termed the Great Resignation, most will agree that it is a multifaceted problem that is impacting just about every workplace sector.  Employers are facing the daunting task of recruiting and retaining employees in a very competitive environment.  Restaurants can’t find cooks, stores can’t find cashiers, and some employees are opting to stay home instead of returning to the typical office environment.

In many cases, employees are choosing to leave the stresses of their previous job in the rear-view mirror and choosing a path that fits the true spirit of a meaningful “work-life” balance.  The fact that our national park systems are seeing historic visitor number is just one indication that peoples’ (and their families) priorities have shifted.  The service sector has probably taken the biggest hit.

Throughout the past several decades, recruitment and retention has been one of the most significant challenges facing the United States fire service.  For communities that rely primarily on volunteer, on-call, or part-time emergency responders, leaders have long been sounding the alarm for some time. In Minnesota, where most of the state relies on a volunteer or on-call firefighting workforce, chiefs struggle with recruiting new members and keeping the experienced ones they have.

Similarly, even large, career-staffed departments are reporting significant drops in the number of applicants taking civil-service exams.  For those that make the top cut after intensive testing and interviews, leaders are seeing applicants drop out at the last minute to pursue other career opportunities altogether, leaving the opportunity of a career in the fire service behind.

Forced with immediate vacancies, departments are now turning to lateral hiring processes to bring on-experienced talent.  While lateral hiring provides a quick fix to fill a hole in one department, it leaves a hole in another. This is a reality that has magnified itself in law enforcement where experienced officers are leaving one department for another. Some metropolitan law enforcement agencies are seeing massive numbers of retirements, resignations, or lateral transfers out.

Our partners in EMS struggle to recruit and keep EMTs and paramedics; wages, benefits, and burnout have new and experienced medical professionals seeking alternative careers. Some agencies are offering thousands of dollars in hiring bonus incentives to attract talent.

As a core, essential public service, our communities rely on our ability to deliver aid in times of crisis. As it has always been, the most important and valuable asset to any fire department is its people.  While we can – and should – continue to make investments into modern fire stations, safer equipment, and technology, we can’t ignore the investment that we need to make into our people, including the systems that support them.  The success of any modern-day fire departments relies on the collective training, education, and experience of the men and women that answer that call for help, and their ability to do so in a timely and efficient manner.

Public safety leaders and elected officials need to work in harmony to address the staffing challenges that face fire departments across the state.  While these challenges are certainly not new to many of us, I fear that it will only further evolve into a crisis if we don’t work collaboratively on finding creative and meaningful solutions.  We can’t afford to let the calls of those that need us to go unanswered.

Note: this article appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

We are here for you

Not long after we rang in the new year, we began hearing about a deadly disease outbreak in Wuhan, China.  Within a short timeframe, the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) spread throughout the United States; it is impacting our communities in an unprecedented way.  To slow the spread of COVID-19, Minnesotans are faced with a new reality of social distancing, a statewide stay at home order, and the closing of restaurants and bars.  Our public health system is preparing to handle a massive influx of patients; we are also faced with the sad reality that some may not be able to recover.

For Minnesota first responders, there is no such thing as telecommuting or working from home.  Every definition of an essential employee includes those on the front-line of this national crisis: firefighters, police officers, EMTs, doctors, nurses, and public health professionals.  We took an oath to serve: our communities need us now more than ever.

The health, safety, and welfare of Minnesota firefighters is our top priority.  In response to the pandemic, the MSFCA created the COVID-19 Task Force.  The Task Force is comprised of senior fire service leaders that are working to support the Minnesota fire service during this crisis.  This includes sharing current protocols, guidelines, tools, and resources on a new website at, responding to your questions sent to, and coordinating directly with the Department of Public Safety and the State Fire Marshal Division.  The MSFCA is devoting its attention to making sure the Minnesota fire service has the information, resources, and support during this difficult time.

MSFCA COVID-19 Task Force

During good times and bad, I know that the dedication, commitment, and passion of the Minnesota fire service is unwavering.  While the strategies and tactics to combat this crisis are not necessarily covered in a firefighting textbook, the fire service has a robust foundation of knowledge, experience, and training to confront this crisis head-on.

Above all, the women and men on the front-line need leadership.  They are looking to you to lead through this crisis.

It is my personal commitment to you that the MSFCA will continue to support the Minnesota fire service today, tomorrow, and long into the future.

My sincere thanks and appreciation to you for your support and trust in the MSFCA.  This Association exists because of the incredible support of our members, committees, vendors, staff, and supporters.  We truly can’t do this without you.

Please do not hesitate to call me directly at 763-286-1288, email, or contact the COVID-19 Task Force at We are here for you.

My best wishes to you, your department, and your family.

Note: this article appeared in the Spring issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week

Every year across the nation, public safety telecommunicators answer over 240 million calls. Public safety dispatchers are everyday heroes, answering the call and providing responders with critical information.

On behalf of the 22,000+ Minnesota firefighters, I want to extend a heartfelt thanks to dispatchers across our state and country. You are truly the lifeline on the other end of the call.

National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week is April 12-18, 2020.

Have We Forgotten?

18 years ago, planes came crashing into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.  Hijackers killed more than 2,900 people that morning and caused billions in dollars’ in damage to property, infrastructure, and our economy.  In the fire service community, we lost 343 FDNY brothers in this heinous attack. 

Yearly anniversaries of that tragic day bring public events, remembrance ceremonies, and TV documentaries covering the rescue and recovery efforts. As life returned to a new normal and the minutes turned into hours, then days, then months, and years, a common phrase emerged: “never forget.”

Sadly, we have forgotten.

We’ve forgotten the united sense of pride and patriotism that emerged on September 12, 2001.  We have forgotten the broad call to action for public service.   We’ve forgotten the commitment and focus to strengthening local communities’ ability to respond to Mrs. Smith’s emergency.  We’ve largely forgotten the sacrifices made that day and the war that rescuers continue to battle to receive healthcare and benefits for rushing into danger as others run out (Jon Stewart’s public outlash brought much needed attention to a crisis facing deathly ill first responders). 

Immediately after September 11, 2001, I witnessed first-hand a different Country.  We had collectively experienced a profound loss together.  Whether you were living in New York, Minnesota, or California, the Country became united.  We were far less concerned or focused on our differences but were rather bonded by the commonalities that make us proud to be Americans.  We cried, laughed, struggled, and strengthened together. 

At the firehouse, we focused our attention on being the best that we could possibly be.  Our doors were flooded with applicants of people looking to serve their community.  When the pager went off, cars practically drove off into the woods as drivers cleared the path to allow police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances to pass.  We rushed to Mrs. Smith’s house where we received a warm greeting (and some calls I fondly remember, freshly baked cookies and a glass of milk).

There will now be people joining your ranks that were born after September 11, 2001.  They will learn about the event through first or third-hand experiences, history lessons, media outlets, social media, and the annual anniversary in which we pledge to “never forget.”  When they hear a PASS device alarming, they won’t connect it to the hundreds of alarms sounding at Ground Zero where our brothers were killed.  The may not understand the significance of the 343 stickers that we proudly display on our trucks, helmets, and lockers.

Never forgetting means keeping the passion, commitment, and determination that existed on September 12, 2001, alive.  We have a responsibility to those we serve to deliver on the promise we made 18 years ago.

Bench-marking Your Fire Department’s Service Levels

As cities across the state and country begin discussions on the upcoming year’s budget and set their maximum tax levy, fire chiefs’ are putting the finishing touches on their requests.  If you’re like me, it always seems like the ink isn’t quite dry on the last budget before you begin work on the next.  Whether your Department’s budget is $10,000 or $10 million, the devil is always in the details; you work hard to ensure that you accurately plan for the upcoming year while remaining conscientious of the tax-payer dollar (ranking 44th in the Country on per-capita spending on the fire service is pretty conscientious if you ask me).

In many department budget requests, you’ll find colorful graphs and charts of historical data sets like the number of calls, average turnout of personnel, response times, and dollar losses.  There might be anticipated increases in responses, inspections, and public contacts.  Yet, despite the 20 pages of fancy pie charts and diagrams, and the confidence that you “told the right story” to justify your budget, you’re left wondering how many additional raffle tickets need to be sold or pancakes eaten to afford the essential items your Department needs.

So, how do you tell the right story to get the funding you desperately need?

You need to have a plan on where you want to go.  In other words, what measurable goals is your organization working to maintain or achieve.  Too often, we only use data sets that tell the reader about the work we are doing (“we went on X number of calls”) and what we anticipate doing in the future (“we expect to respond to Y additional calls next year”).  Unfortunately, these individual datasets lack any reference to any measurable outcome that helps tell your story (aside from the obvious that you’re getting “busier”).

Take for instance fire loss.  Research has shown that keeping a structure fire to the room of origin greatly increases the chance of survival and significantly decreases the damage to the structure.  After a collaborative community-involved strategic planning process, the Brooklyn Park Fire Department, for instance, established a benchmark of containing structure fires to the room of origin for 80% of all incidents.  To achieve this requires a multi-pronged approach of education, prevention, mitigation, and response.  From a response perspective, additional benchmarks were set for call processing times (2 minutes, 90 percent of the time), a rapid turnout time (2 minutes, 90 percent of the time) and strategically located stations to provide a quick drive time.  Note the 90th percentile is a more common unit of measurement for emergency service delivery although most records system report averages.

As you begin to look to the upcoming year, I encourage you to find measurable outputs that you can use to establish strategic benchmarks for your Department.  Work collaboratively with your internal and external (i.e. community) stakeholders to set realistic, achievable, and actionable benchmarks.  Utilize NFPA standards, accreditation models, and industry best practices.  Be honest and let the data and your benchmarking tell the true story.

Note: this article appeared in the September issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

Having a Real Discussion on Recruitment and Retention

Shortly after becoming a volunteer firefighter, I attended an all-day class on volunteer recruitment and retention at the Connecticut Fire Academy’s June School fire training program. This all-day seminar shed light on the mounting challenges facing America’s fire service on attracting talent and keeping it. The statistics were alarming and departments across the country were sharing similar stories about declining volunteerism, increased service demands, and the challenges of managing a modern-era fire service. At the conclusion of the class, I was provided a book titled, “Retention and Recruitment in the Volunteer Fire Service: Problems and Solutions.” As a young, newly-anointed firefighter, I was eager to attack this problem head-on. After all, we are the fire service and we can solve any problem! The year was 1998.

Fast-forward over twenty years and many of the discussions are still occurring around the firehouse apparatus floor. Sadly, in some cases, department’s have closed their doors after succumbing to the challenges of recruitment and retention. I’ve talked to many chiefs that are beyond struggling to recruit firefighters. Recent data released by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimated that there was a significant drop in volunteer firefighters in recent years. Kevin Quinn, Chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) states, “We know many volunteer fire departments are struggling to maintain adequate staffing. However, the scale of the loss of volunteer firefighters estimated in this report is really disturbing and something that we need to work as a community and a nation to address.”

The volunteer fire/EMS/rescue service in North America is in a major and measurable crisis…not “gonna be in a crisis”…it IS in a crisis and few want to genuinely fix the problem. Now, when we say fix the problem, I mean fix it so when whoever dials 9-1-1, they hear fire apparatus sirens a few minutes later.

Chief Billy Goldfeder, The Secret List – The Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick Maker are not Coming

We are a problem-solving oriented culture; after-all, we often get called to problems that no one else was able to resolve. I can honestly say that America’s fire service has tried probably every possible strategy to address this problem and it still isn’t getting any better; in fact, the data shows it’s getting worse. While there are exceptions and great success stories about department’s that aren’t experiencing these challenges, by-and-large, it remains one of the most significant challenges facing the fire service across the country and in our own state.

As the data suggests, the past practices and models of the fire service are not working, specifically with regard to recruitment and retention. This deserves greater discussion with fire service leadership and a broader investment into fire protection across the state with the hope of achieving a better ranking than 45th in per-capita spending in one of the most essential public services.

The MSFCA, along with our fire service partners, have been actively engaged on statewide initiatives to help local departments – including cities – on fire service issues. For example, fire protection districts were introduced as a measure to help two or more units of government in creating a more effective and efficient fire service model. A fire protection district would allow for greater flexibility in meeting the long-term public safety needs of a community while still maintaining local control. This is one of many examples in which the MSFCA along with our fire service partners are working collaboratively to help the entire Minnesota fire service.

Despite our best efforts to enact positive legislative change at the state level, we continue to struggle to advance initiatives such as this because many do not see our current system as needing repair or changes.

I am incredibly thankful and appreciative to the working groups, committees, and task forces that have been advocating for the Minnesota fire service. This is a broad representation of fire service stakeholders. As President of the MSFCA, I have full trust and faith in our appointed representatives in the great work they are doing and for carrying our initiatives forward.

I encourage every MSFCA member to get involved – your voice matters. I realize that many chiefs may find themselves in a difficult position to speak on the challenges their communities face. If you want to share your story, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly at We need to hear from you!

Note: this article appeared in the Spring issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

Additional commentary attrituted to Chief Billy Goldfeder at, home of the Secret List.

Is there a crisis in the fire service?

Despite the federal government shutdown, the argument over funding a wall along the southern border of the United States, and the persistent political commentary filling Twitter, we remain focused on the issues and challenges facing the Minnesota fire service at home.  As the next legislative session kicks into gear, our legislative committee, MnFAC, and our government relations vendor will be actively working to ensure that we – the Minnesota fire service – have a voice at the state level.  In many respects, our work is truly just beginning.

I had the recent opportunity to attend one of the MnFIRE training sessions.  The two-hour program was incredibly valuable as we look to addressing the issues our firefighters face every day.  Prior to the start of the class, my colleagues and I at Brooklyn Park fire started a discussion about health and wellness at the kitchen table.  The training expanded upon and reinforced the discussion we just had while sipping a cup of coffee.  We need to take better care of ourselves, each other, and the very institution we have taken an oath to serve.

It’s no secret that Minnesota ranks 45th in per-capita spending on the fire service.  This statistic is much more than just a sound-bite.  When we look around the state, we can clearly see the impact that the lack of funding has on one the most essential core functions of government.  Fire departments lack the necessary resources (including personnel) to adequately respond to calls and continue to struggle to meet the growing demands of the communities they serve.  Pull-tabs, pancake breakfasts, fish-fries, and other fundraisers are often the only major source of financial capital to fund essential services in many departments.  We are learning that the hazards of the profession are far greater than just responding to call.  We need additional resources to properly take care of our most valuable asset: our people. 

In Pennsylvania, State Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R., Allegheny) is quoted as saying that the state is in a crisis after a 2018 published report highlighted significant problems in the state’s fire/emergency services.  Dwindling numbers of volunteers and a lack of resources paint a striking similar picture to that facing many Minnesota departments.  The question is truly, “how do we fix this” and who is going to take the lead?

To start, we need to be a united Minnesota fire service and committed to solving our problems together.  While every community is arguably unique, we still share many of the same problems and we need to be open, honest, and transparent in telling our story – including the challenges we face.  We need to find champions – elected representatives at all levels – that are willing to help the fire service in addressing the real problems that exist across the state.  Many communities cannot face or fix these problems alone and need the broader support.

At some point in the future, all of us will find ourselves reflecting at the end of our fire service career.  What was the impact that we made?  Let 2019 be the year that we truly focus on making significant, positive changes throughout the Minnesota fire service.  To find out how you can help, contact our Legislative Committee at

Note: this article appeared in the February/March issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!