As a part of the Institutional Knowledge project, we are recording the wisdom and experience of retiring and retired leaders in local government. If you know someone who could add something to this project, let me know! You can reach out to me on Twitter/ LinkedIn or send me an email. About Me: Jacob Johnson, #InstitutionalKnowledge Project Coordinator
Former Fire Chief of Chapel Hill, North Carolina
As a part of the Institutional Knowledge project, I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet some incredible government leaders. One of those leaders is Daniel Jones. I had the pleasure of asking him a few questions about his experience as a public servant over the course of several years. Big thanks to Chapel Hill for introducing me!!
What role does the idea of community play in fire department and your role as a fire chief?
In order to be a public safety officer of any type, there must be ownership. No matter what your position, there must be ownership of the community and a true interest in the community. That aspect is vital to your success.
I consider public safety roles to be a calling. You won’t get rich doing it. There’s career limits associated with the role. So you to be a successful public safety officer, you have to want to do it. You need to enjoy it and be committed. It can’t be treated just a job or a career. In order to be successful, you need to have a pretty deep sense of dedication.
I think that sometimes the general public doesn’t understand that a lot of people in public service are there because they want to. They could do other things. Public servants could get jobs that make more money, get more perks, or have higher levels of appreciation. For the most part, public servants are really dedicated to their professions and to their communities.
If you hang around firefighters for long enough, you’ll find out that they love to gripe and complain. It’s almost a sport for them. But if you ever suggested that they get out of the service, they’d be offended by that. Those that do leave the fire service generally regret it.
What would your advice be to someone who is considering entering public service?
I have few pieces of advice that I would share. First, ensure that your integrity is solid and intact. Protect your integrity, particularly if you desire a long career or want to move up in responsibilities. Integrity carries a tremendous amount of weight.
Second, complete your education as early as possible in your career. Don’t keep putting it off. Today, education is highly valued in public service and emergency services. It’s a mistake to put things off—life gets pretty busy.
Third, find a mentor. Mentorship is not as prevalent in public safety as it once was and I think we’ve lost something because of that. I think mentorship is the key to filling in the gaps of education and experience. Education is great; experience is great. But there will be gaps, and mentorship can fill in those gaps. A good mentor can practice with you what I call “guided discovery.” In “guided discovery,” a mentor will not give you the answers, but will help you find the answers. A good mentor may help you know where to search or which door to knock on.
Tell us about some of the mentors that you have had and what they have meant to you.
I’ve had some great mentors, starting with Ed Biggers, an older driver-engineer. He took me under his wing when I was a rookie and had long talks with me about everything, from technical skills and the culture of the fire service to how to work with different people.
Over the course of my career, I had several older chief officers who took an interest in my career and me. They weren’t in my department, but they spent time with me, introduced me to other organizations like the ISFSI, and went with me to trainings and meetings.
I also had a network. There was a group of us that all taught at St. Petersburg at the same time. There were about ten of us and we developed pretty deep bonds. We all came from different backgrounds and different fire departments, but we all had one thing in common: we taught together. That group stayed in contact over the years. Even as we scattered career-wise, we stayed in touch; we were sounding boards for each other, counselors, and frustration vents. There was always someone that you could pick up the phone or send an email to say, “Hey I’m dealing with this problem. Have you ever dealt with something like this before?”
Interestingly enough, every one of those men either became a fire chief or a state fire marshal. One became a college professor. Each one of them became a notable leader in the fire service. I truly believe that the network of mutual support and mentoring had a lot to do with that.
You also worked as the Editor in Chief of the National Fire and Rescue Magazine.
That’s correct. When I stepped down as the director of the ISFSI, the publishing company of that magazine about being their editor in chief approached me. They paired me with a managing editor, whose career was in publishing. For ten years, the two of us ran that journal.
It was a very interesting experience. I attend a lot of events and conferences for fire service “wearing” that hat. My focus at the time was to publish information that could be used day-to-day in fire departments. Our goal was to publish a magazine, out of which people would tear pages to keep for future reference.
Writing an editorial every month was a new challenge. And I occasionally took positions that got me some hate mail, so that was a new experience. But overall, it was like learning a whole new business. We were proud of what we did.
You retired from fire service in 2015, but have kept extremely busy. Tell us about that.
Like I said, I wanted to teach. I was introduced to Kelly Walsh. She was a certified executive coach, but was really interested in getting involved with public service again. We met, discussed leadership philosophy and our respective experiences in public service, and ultimately decided to join forces between my LLC and hers. We have a “Coach Kelly, Chief Dan” program, in which we teach leadership and management to fire service leaders and other public safety leaders. We’ve been doing that for about a year and a half, and the bookings are coming in steadily. We address a wide variety of topics, but we don’t talk about tactical or operational issues.
We focus on the “soft” leadership and administration skills that are lacking in public safety: HR, budgeting, public engagement, etc. Both Kelly and I bring a different perspective to the table when we’re teaching. It’s been really rewarding for me.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Completed my degree earlier in my career. Actually, to this day, I still don’t have a degree. I have a 138 college credits, but there from all different institutions, so I don’t have a degree from anyone.
Any final thoughts?
If you aspire to a higher leadership role, don’t focus all of your training and education on operational issues. That’s a mistake a lot of people make. You also need to learn how to maintain a budget, deal with the public and elected officials, be a part of a team. You’re not just the lead fire chief, you have deal several different community issues, and so you need to be well read on those types of things. Your education should be well rounded, and not focused solely on the operational issues.
My advice to anyone in public service or who plans on entering, make sure your heart is in it. You won’t get rich or famous. You’ll make a good living, but you have to do it because you want to do it.
- Institutional Knowledge with Lew Quigley, Part 1
- Institutional Knowledge with Lew Quigley, Part 2
- Institutional Knowledge with Cal Horton, Part 1
- Institutional Knowledge with Cal Horton, Part 2
- Institutional Knowledge with Bill Monahan, Part 1
- Institutional Knowledge with Bill Monahan, Part 2
Have you learned something new as part of your career in local government? Or do you know someone who has had an outstanding career in local government? We want to hear about it! Contact Jacob Johnson to nominate someone for the #InstitutionalKnowledge series: Twitter | LinkedIn | email