Inside Look at Careers in Fire Service Leadership

May is Public Safety month at University of Maryland University College’s (UMUC) Office of Career Services. Throughout the month, we are highlighting the University’s public safety experts to examine career and industry trends, and provide students and alumni a chance to learn about different career paths within this industry.

Recently, UMUC Adjunct Public Safety Faculty David Hartley answered questions about career trends and opportunities in public safety and emergency services. Hartley is an adjunct assistant professor for PSAD 416, Public Safety Leadership.  He is also the Fire Marshal and a Deputy Fire Chief for the Town of Ocean City, Maryland, the second largest city in Maryland during the summer months.

16-IN-MAY-040_UMUC_Public_Safety_Month_-_David_Hartley_FBAs Fire Marshal, Hartley is responsible for the life safety and protection of property for the citizens, visitors and residents of Ocean City from fire, explosives and hazardous materials.  He is also responsible for managing the hazardous materials/biochemical response teams, professional standards, fire and explosive investigations and special events. Hartley’s additional responsibilities include acting as the Fire Chief’s liaison to Emergency Management and the Emergency Operations Center.

A certified bomb technician and the bomb squad commander by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Hartley is responsible for responding to Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives (CBRNE) incidents in the Ocean City and Worcester County areas. He has been in the fire service for 27 years and a sworn police officer for 20 years, and a graduate of UMUC with a Bachelor of Science in Fire Science, and a MBA from Salisbury University.

Q. Working as a Fire Marshal, your role is a combination of both fire services and politics. Can you describe how you balance both aspects of the role? How do you work with both your fire services and local government on a daily basis and in times of crisis?

A. The most important thing you have to remember is know your job and role, especially when you are working with elected officials and politics. In most cases your elected officials are the policy makers, and as an employee in public safety, it is your job to execute those policies appropriately and do the job you have been hired to do. In a time of crisis, it is that much more important to adhere to your role and provide competent advice to policy makers, especially in a declared emergency.  Just as important, get to know the leaders in your government and organization, so when you are operating in a time of crisis, it is not the first time you have met them.  Establish strong professional relationships in advance of your critical incidents.

Q. Working in fire service leadership, can you please discuss the management aspect of this role? How do you assess a situation before sending fire fighters (and other staff) into harms way to accomplish the task at-hand?

A. Management in the fire service is really no different than any other field, with the exception that bad management can be deadly to the public and the fire fighters who work for you. I see it as my responsibility as a fire service leader and manager to provide the department’s employees with the training, tools, knowledge, skills and ability they need to safely and effectively perform their jobs.  When management has appropriately invested in the training of their fire fighters, sending them into harm’s way is more measured with successful and predictable outcomes.

Q. What career paths could one pursue working in fire service leadership?

A. In general, there are two divisions within the fire service, operations and support services, which provide numerous career paths. Within these two divisions there are numerous functions.  One of the most important things we do is respond to emergencies, which are handled by the operations division.  This division handles all hazard emergencies twenty-four hours a day seven days a week, answering all calls for service that include medical, fire, and rescue.  Specific specialties in operations are emergency medical technicians, fire fighters, hazmat technicians, bomb technicians and rescue specialists.  The less visible divisions in fire service are the support services.  The operations division could not function without the invaluable support services.  These services include training, logistics, planning, finance, facilities, human resources, prevention and protection, emergency management, equipment and vehicles.

Q. What inspired you to pursue a career path fire safety leadership? What education path did you pursue? How did you begin your career?

A. I started my fire service career as a volunteer. As a volunteer I was afforded the opportunity to experience many aspects of the fire service, from being a line officer to an administrative officer.  My inspiration to pursue a career in the fire service came from the incredible men and women I met along the way.  I was especially inspired by the collective talents each one brought to handle any given emergency.  I started my career in the Fire Marshal’s Office by participating in an internship program.  From there I worked part-time for two summers, and was finally offered a full time position.  While working full time I was able to take open learning classes with UMUC in fire science, and eventually obtained my bachelor’s degree, which ultimately helped in my promotions.  As I moved up in the ranks I felt obligated to the department to continue advancing my knowledge, and eventually obtained a master’s degree in business administration.

Q. How have some of your career experiences shaped you into the professional you are today?

A. In fire service and public safety in general, everything we do is labor intensive. I have learned over the years responding to numerous emergencies that we have a tendency in management and leadership to invest in the best apparatuses, buildings and equipment, which is necessary.  However, our main focus should be investing in and taking care of our employees, our most valuable resource.

Q. What personality and character traits must fire leadership professionals possess?

A. One of the first things I share in developing officers, is always do the right thing. In public safety you are given the public’s trust, it is incumbent upon leaders to not violate that trust, and hold yourself and the employees to high a moral standard. In public safety we see people at their worst and at their best, we provide services to everyone regardless of their politics, position or outlook on life.  To do this as a public safety official, you must separate your personal feelings and beliefs and do the task at hand, and serve the public, which is what makes you a professional.

Q. What advice would you give UMUC students entering this field?

A. For someone looking to enter public safety I highly encourage you to do a ride along. Most departments allow them to the general public, and especially someone who is interested in a public safety career.  Internships and volunteering can be some of the best methods to get your foot in the door and make connections.  In the absence of a job opening in a department, volunteering can get you the experience and exposure you need to management.  You may have the added benefit of free training as a volunteer.  The competition in civil service jobs is intense, so every opportunity you get to separate yourself from the competition the better. 

Q. For UMUC students and alumni already working in the field, what advice would you give them on how to keep advancing and taking on more leadership opportunities?

A. Every training or work assignment opportunity you get, take it. The more well-rounded your skills are, the more valuable you become to management. Most importantly, if you are interested in developing your leadership skills focus on two things, one make sure you are a master of your craft and two develop excellent communication skills.  Prepare and develop a plan for advancing your leadership skills through formal education, seminars and in house training.  Lastly, be the best leader you can be at your current assignment and take care of your people.

Q. Any final thoughts or recommendations you want to share with UMUC students and alumni currently working in the field? What experience, education, and skill sets must they obtain to pursue a career in fire service leadership?

A. For the UMUC student and alumni working in the field I will share what I believe has personally helped me be successful in my career in public safety. At the beginning of my career I took mental notes of those people I like to be led by, and emulated their characteristics. Be honest and compassionate to your employees, take care of them, you work for them.  Always be calm cool and collected, no one needs a spastic screaming leader on an emergency.  Make decisions, regardless of how tough they may be, and take responsibility for the results.  Pass along the praise to those actually doing the work.  Learn how to be an effective communicator.  Invest in your human resources.  Become a master of your craft and a life-long learner.  Have a vision for the department, share it, and execute.

 For more information on career opportunities and resources available to UMUC students and alumni from the Office of Career Services, click here.

Jennifer Tomasovic is the director, Communications for Career Services and Alumni Relations at University of Maryland University College. She has spent her 15 year career crafting communications strategies and messages using both marketing and public relations tactics enhancing the brand and reputation for both the clients and organizations she represents.