The person at the top of the fire department is the Fire Chief. The Fire Chief is the top officer of the department, and is the one who reports to City Council, Village Board, or whatever government body is in charge. Very large departments may call the person in charge the commissioner. Fire Chiefs work normal 40 hour work week schedules and also respond to fires during off hours.
Division Chiefs are found in some large departments. Division Chiefs may be in charge of Fire Prevention, training, or specialty teams.
In military command structures, a battalion chief is responsible for a group of 100 soldiers. Battalion Chiefs in the fire service are usually in charge of smaller groups, sometimes as few as 10 or 12. Battalion Chiefs are usually in charge of several fire stations and respond from the station with the on duty companies
Once arriving on the scene of an incident, the Battalion Chief most likely assumes command of the incident and is responsible for controlling the operation at the fire. Battalion Chiefs are generally considered administrative positions as they wear white shirts and don’t get involved in the hands-on portion of the job.
The Captains rank if very similar to the Battalion Chief. In some departments both of these ranks exist and hold the same responsibilities. Captain positions are more likely obtained by a competitive testing position and a Battalion Chief position is more likely attained by appointment of the Fire Chief.
The best rank in the fire service in my opinion is the Lieutenant. The Lieutenant position is obtained by participating in a competitive testing process which includes written exams, oral exams, and interviews. Testing process also often includes participation in an assessment center which put the candidate through several job related scenarios. These assessment center scenarios can include employee conflict exercises as well as fire scene role playing.
On a day to day basis, the Lieutenant is responsible for the day to day operation of one fire station. Throughout the day, the Lieutenant is responsible for deciding firefighter assignments, training drills, and ensuring the scheduled maintenance and duties are completed. If the Lieutenant arrives before a Chief Officer, they are responsible for deciding the tactics used to control the scene. The Lieutenant normally will be found inside the fire building directing the attack, and participating in the firefighting operations.
The position of engineer may be a formal rank or it may just be a title given to those that are qualified to operate fire apparatus. Whether an official rank or not, the engineer is responsible for operating all the equipment on the fire apparatus. The most important roles of the engineer is to supply the proper pressure on all the hose lines coming from the engine. Friction loss calculations can be difficult with several hose lines flowing varying amounts of water.
Last but certainly not least on the command structure is the firefighter. Without well trained firefighters none of the other ranks would really matter. Firefighters are the ones that get in and get dirty getting the job done. There are a lot of firefighters that opt out of promotional opportunities because they prefer to stay firefighters and get in on the action.
Some people are mistaken when they measure the worth of a person in the fire service by their rank. It is true that the Fire Chief has more control of the fire department than a firefighter, but that does not mean the Chief is more important. Your importance to the fire service depends on how much you give to the department, and the importance the rest of the firefighters give to you. A well respected firefighter can be more of a leader than anyone else on the department. Don’t let a lack of rank keep you from being a leader.