Administration and Leadership

It’s Not Just a Title: The importance of having a ‘chief’

Issue 8 and Volume 33.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “chief” as “the head of a body of persons or an organization” or “something of greatest importance or influence.” The public recognizes this title and is familiar with the labels “police chief” and “fire chief.” The problem is, when it comes to„EMS, the head of the agency is referred to in multiple ways.„

A recent poll on found that 37% of EMS organizations call their top officer “chief,” 33% “director,” 9% “captain,” 8% “manager,” 7% “president” and 6% other titles.„

I bet if a similar poll was completed in the fire service, more than 90% of leaders would be called chiefs, with a couple commissioners here and there. And in police departments, the title “sheriff” would be common, but the majority of leaders would be chiefs.„

The title of chief isn’t just an issue of semantics. Although titles may not matter much within an organization, they do matter outside of it. If you ask the public who’s in charge of an emergency, they will without a doubt say the chief. Some may say this reflects a misunderstanding by the public, but no matter the reason, the title of chief holds a special spot in the public’s perception of public safety. This perception may be hurting the 63% of„EMS systems that don’t have a chief, but we’re just not aware of it.„

If a police chief, fire chief and EMS director are all at a public meeting asking for funds, the town members may be more likely to listen to the chiefs rather than the„EMS director, even though they’re all the heads of their respective organizations.„

In theory, these public services shouldn’t battle; we should all work together. But when it comes to funding, we all have to make the case for our share. A quick look at federal funding reveals dedicated grant sources for fire and police, yet none specifically for„EMS. There are a variety of reasons for this, but if we want the respect of the public, we not only have to earn it, but also place ourselves on the same level as fire and police. If all„EMS agencies adopted the title of chief for their top leader, we would be one step closer to equality.„

I know this would cause quite a bit of debate, but if„EMS, both volunteer and paid, is to be respected as a profession, our leaders must be respected. This esteem must be earned, but the connotation of “chief” and its inherent attention-drawing qualities would help.„

The problem is that the other services we work with often oppose the creation of an„EMS chief title. The fact that others fight the title, even though it’s a change in name only, is yet another symptom of the problem. This negative reaction is a disservice to our leaders and the communities we serve.

We should also have a similar structure as police and fire, with assistant or deputy chiefs, captains and lieutenants. The responsibility and authority levels are comparable, why aren’t the titles? Some communities may consider their„EMS agency subordinate to others, but we provide a public service just as fire and police do. Your membership may say titles, badges and uniforms don’t matter, but they matter in the public’s eyes, and this is just a way for your leader to “stake their claim” and a rightful seat at the head of the table.

Your applicable state and federal laws or regulations may allow additional legal rights and responsibilities afforded to the chief of a public service agency. Defining these legalities is part of your attorney’s job. Your attorney may also tell you that in order to be eligible for these rights and responsibilities, your top leader has to fit the mold, and the title of chief may be part of the requirements.

There’s many reasons why a change in title for the top person of your organization would benefit your agency, but the bottom line is that getting there is worth the work. The process will vary by department, but the goal is to change the document that describes your organizational structure. This may require bylaw changes, ratifications by boards or even public hearings, but the short-term pain is worth the long-term gain. The fight isn’t only to establish the new title, but to establish the equality of your leader and your agency in the community you serve. Creating and maintaining the position of EMS chief is just one more step toward creating a professional organization and improving„EMS as a profession overall.„