A fire chief is a top executive rank or commanding officer in a fire department.
Various official English-language titles for a fire chief include fire chief, chief fire officer and fire commissioner. The latter can refer to a fire chief or to an overseer who works for the local government. Chief Fire Officer is the usual title in the United Kingdom. Traditionally, a fire chief in Scotland was known as a fire master, but this was changed in 2006.
The definition of the term fire officer varies by country, but generally refers to all firefighting personnel who have some command duties. This is comparable to the usage of "officer" in the military, rather than the term police officer. In fire departments of the United States, fire officers who are part of an engine company (Lieutenant and Captain) are company officers and those ranked higher (e.g. Battalion Chief) are chief officers.
A fire chief is usually appointed by the authority who oversees the running of the fire department, such as the mayor for a municipal fire department.
It varies among countries as to whether it is the norm or not for fire chiefs to be former frontline firefighters. This is the case in the United States. It is also the norm in the United Kingdom, though in recent years there have been exceptions. By contrast, in France, fire officers and frontline firefighters are recruited separately in a similar way to the military.
A fire chief's role varies considerably depending on the size of the department. Some countries have a single national fire service, such as Israel and New Zealand. Conversely, some countries like the United States and Germany have autonomous fire departments even in small towns. Others organize their fire services based on subdivisions such as regions, counties, provinces or sub-national states.
The larger the fire department, the more ranks will exist in between the chief and regular firefighters, such as assistant or deputy chiefs. The chief of a small volunteer fire department is likely to be the main incident commander for the majority of their call-outs and is nearly always a volunteer as well. On the other hand, the chief of a large fire department is employed in a mostly administrative role, and will only be called out to the largest incidents.
The fire chief is responsible for carrying out the day-to-day tasks of running a firefighting organization. Such tasks include supervising other officers and firefighters at an emergency scene and recruiting, training, and equipping them for their respective duties. Depending upon local needs and organization, the Chief may also be involved in fire prevention, fire inspection, disaster preparedness, emergency medical services, and related disciplines, as well as administrative duties such as budgets and personnel issues, research into safety and regulations, and liaison with other agencies. The chief is answerable to the local or national government that oversees the fire service.
During an emergency incident, the first fire officer on the scene must "establish command", which can then be transferred to more senior officers such as the chief. The chief may delegate some statutory powers to qualified officers, such as the ability to enter or use private property as reasonably necessary to stop a fire, or to order people or property seized as may be essential to preserving safety or investigating the cause of an incident.