Skip to main content

Fire Chief Salary and Career Overview

April 26, 2023

Firefighters are the backbone of emergency services and are crucial in protecting communities from natural and human-made disasters. Thanks to the tireless efforts of firefighters, communities are safer and more secure. According to a report from the National Fire Protection Association, in 2021 local fire departments responded to an estimated 1.35 million fires, with a response taking place every 23 seconds, on average.

These professionals are often first responders to emergencies of all kinds, from hazardous chemical accidents to earthquake-related building collapses. Given how quickly firefighters need to respond in a crisis, along with the importance of fostering a strong relationship with their community and acting as safety role models, fire departments need leaders capable of expertly managing personnel, budget and resources.

The fire chief is the highest-ranking member of a fire department, and it falls on them to maintain and manage the department. Consequently, a fire chief’s salary is often commensurate with the high level of responsibility and extensive training their role calls for.

Those who desire to keep their community safe as leaders in emergency response should consider how an advanced degree can support their career plans.

What Does a Fire Chief Do?

A fire chief’s role can change depending on the size of the fire department itself, with smaller volunteer departments occasionally requiring more hands-on work. However, they typically oversee their personnel’s training and development. They also ensure that firefighters and captains have the necessary resources to do their jobs, including equipment and training materials, while also managing the budget and expenses of the department.

A fire chief must demonstrate leadership qualities and strong decision-making skills. One of the responsibilities of a fire chief is to ensure and promote the safety of their community as a safety ambassador. They often participate in public events, educate citizens on fire safety and serve as role models for the community.

Developing and implementing emergency plans is another important responsibility of fire chiefs. They must consider potential hazards in the community and outline appropriate responses to mitigate risks. Fire chiefs must also work closely with other emergency response agencies, local government officials and community groups to coordinate a disaster response that ensures that appropriate resources and personnel are available during emergencies.

Ensuring the safety and well-being of their staff is another critical aspect of what a fire chief does. As leaders, they have to make sure that firefighters are properly trained and equipped as well as monitor the physical and mental health of their team and step in when issues arise. 

How to Become a Fire Chief 

Few fire chiefs find their way into the role without first spending time as a firefighter, building up experience and understanding the realities that firefighters and emergency responders face as part of their job. To qualify for a job as a firefighter, individuals typically need to be at least 18 years old and pass the necessary benchmarks, including a fitness test, drug screening and background check. At a minimum, aspiring firefighters will also need a high school diploma or equivalent to qualify for a firefighting position.

Firefighters also need to undergo rigorous training. Attending a training academy helps firefighters learn the protocols to put out fires safely and attend to those affected. Additional certifications, such as emergency medical technician (EMT) or CPR certification, can enhance an individual’s qualifications and enable them to respond to emergencies more effectively.

Much like the military, becoming a fire chief often requires climbing up the chain of command and taking on new responsibilities. Aspiring fire chiefs can facilitate their promotion by forging connections with their superiors and demonstrating a desire to rise up the ranks. They can achieve this by earning certifications or advancing their education.

Earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in fire science, occupational safety, public administration or even double majoring in communications or leadership can help individuals hone their management skills. Earning a relevant advanced degree can also provide aspiring chiefs with specialized knowledge and skills in areas such as risk management, public policy and leadership. In addition to boosting their odds for a promotion, advancing their expertise may also influence a fire chief’s salary.


After advancing into supervisory roles, fire chiefs and prospective fire chiefs should consider obtaining more specialized certifications, such as the International Association of Emergency Managers’ (IAEM) Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) credential, which showcases a minimum standard of education, experience and professional contributions in the field of emergency management.

Earning a CEM can benefit someone looking to become a fire chief as it demonstrates their competency in emergency management, a crucial component of a fire chief’s responsibilities. A firefighter with a CEM certification can bring additional expertise to their department, making them a competitive candidate for the fire chief position. Fire departments in areas prone to natural disasters or public health emergencies may prefer or require a CEM from fire chief candidates. 

Fire Chief Salary 

The median annual salary associated with fire chiefs was approximately $82,900, according to Payscale data from March 2023. The location where they work can have a significant influence on a fire chief’s salary. Some areas offer higher compensation if they more regularly experience fires or natural disasters. Fire chiefs can also consider leveraging their experience and certifications to negotiate a higher wage with the governing body or organization that oversees their fire department.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), firefighter positions, including fire chiefs, will have a projected job growth of 4 percent between 2021 and 2031. This growth rate is about average for most careers; however, the BLS notes that there will be approximately 28,000 openings for firefighters each year during that period. 

Climb the Ranks With an HSEP Degree

Those who seek an education that can prepare them for a leadership role in emergency response should consider Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program. With a strong focus on emergency preparedness, response and recovery, this program equips students with the knowledge and skills needed to keep their communities safe.

Discover your leadership potential with Virginia Commonwealth University.