NCAFC Leadership Focus
NCAFC Members Sharing from Their Leadership Thoughts & Experiences
Chief Susanna Schmitt Williams
Carrboro Fire-Rescue Department
Fire Service Experience
Graham Volunteer Fire Department (1998-2003), Volunteer Firefighter
Burlington Fire Department (2001-2002), Firefighter
Chapel Hill Fire Department (2003-2009),Master Firefighter, Administrative Officer, Administrative Captain
Oak Island Fire Department (2009-2010), Volunteer Firefighter, Firefighter/EMT-I
New Hanover County Fire-Rescue (2010-2012), Volunteer Program Coordinator
Jacksonville Fire & Emergency Services (2012-2015), Division Chief of Training & Standards
Carrboro Fire-Rescue Department (2015-Present), Fire Chief
What would you consider the greatest leadership challenge you have faced and how were you able to overcome it?
The biggest leadership challenge I have faced is having our department embrace a culture focused on community risk reduction. The fire service still strongly approaches our profession as reactive vs. proactive. In Carrboro we're working to overcome this several ways. The foundation was initiated by the previous administration. Fire Inspector, Fire & Life Safety Educator, Car Seat Technician, and CRR courses, etc. certifications are requirements as part of the promotional process.
We conduct company level inspections along with preplans. Our org chart does not have a life safety or CRR division as a side bar. We are small enough that our Deputy Chief position is Deputy Chief / Fire Marshal. CRR then unfolds like an umbrella throughout the department, permeating each rank. We're also getting ready to make some pretty big changes in the structure of the department to focus more on managing by talent vs. managing by rank. This will create an even bigger emphasis on being proactive with CRR vs the reactive culture. We'll always remain ready through training, apparatus, equipment, and resources for an all hazard response when needed but our focus is proactive.
What is the best leadership advice you have ever received and how were able to best apply it to your career?
The best leadership advice I have ever received was creating a ring of different levels of mentors / coaches. I was taught to have a couple of really close mentors who will tell it to me like it is and not necessarily what I want to hear. Those are the ones I share everything with, the good, the bad, my fears, my excitement. Then expand out to having outer levels where the depth of conversation gets less the farther out in the ring I go. Those on my outer perimeter may be colleagues from classes or conferences who I view as SMEs on topics. I reach out to them to have conversations specific to topics.
My mentors also are not all in the fire service. I have several in fields not related to emergency services: mass transportation, rec & parks, technology, and real estate to name a few. I've utilized mentors advice over the years and it has helped tremendously. I would not be where I am today without the mentors and coaches I have had throughout my career. I was also told to pay it forward. I try to mentor and coach whenever I can, both formally and informally. I've successfully coached three formal mentees through promotional processes. I was also told its time to stop mooching off the system and start giving back. I'm trying to write more articles, instruct / present more, and give back more to the fire service that has provided so much to me. I would challenge other fire service leaders to do the same.
What advice would you share with future fire service leaders?
Here's my random list of advice in no particular order: Don't ever stop learning. Continue to seek out knowledge. Ask a lot of questions, then ask some more. Share your knowledge; don't be selfish. Create a network of mentors and coaches of many levels. Travel and attend conferences outside your comfort zone (i.e. affinity group conferences such as I-Women, International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, etc.).
We learn the most by stepping outside our comfort zones. Never accept no as a final answer, step forward with a response of "if not that then this" - always have the rebuttal comment ready for the no. Embrace diversity and inclusion; they're different, know and understand the difference. Be courageous and have difficult conversations. Be creative. Don't accept "because that's the way we've always done things." Stay humble. Keep integrity as a core value. Find work / life balance. Have a "you" outside of and separate from the fire service.
What else would you like to share that we may have not asked?
I also serve as a member of the IAFC Human Relations Committee. I strongly encourage every leader in the fire service to be cognizant of the unintentional message you may be sending with your choice of language. Use gender neutral language instead of male: firefighter vs. fireman, personnel/staffing vs. manpower, they or he/she instead of he, etc. It takes time to train yourself to change word preferences but you can do it. When we don't, the unintentional message sent is women don't belong in this profession.
Recently I assisted with a peer review of a department and was the only woman in a room full of some pretty progressive fire chiefs from across the state. In an 8 hour period, 24 times male words / pronouns were utilized. That means on average 3 times an hour I was made to feel I don't belong. That's not ok. Not in 2017. I made them all aware at the end of the day and held each one accountable even if they didn't use the masculine words. Why, because they didn't correct each other. Stand up for the inclusion of ALL in the fire service. Hold each other accountable as leaders. Help each other learn to make the changes in word preferences. Random fact about me - I don't belong to i-Women and I don't ever intend to become a member. I believe the affinity groups have a place and purpose for some firefighters but in the end we all need to work together and be inclusive of all. Everyone. I choose to belong to the ALL of the fire service and make the personal decision to not segregate myself into an affinity group.
I grew up in Philadelphia and love cheesesteaks, hoagies, and soft pretzels. I'm an Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, and 76ers fan. I graduated from Temple University and was originally a school teacher before becoming a firefighter. I'm a single mother of two young men ages 14 and 10. Our family zoo consists of two dogs, a cat, and two lizards. I try to deny it all I want and I cringe when I say it - I am a soccer mom. We live in beautiful Chatham County just outside of Carrboro / Chapel Hill. We're a very active family and on nice days you'll find us outside, probably playing soccer. My side gig is teaching piano lessons to neighborhood children. I've played piano for 35 years now and am classically trained - think Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, etc. I started jazz piano lessons two years ago and let's just say I'm still a work in progress. We also love to travel and take road trips that usually include some sort of car disaster.
We've been up and down the east coast from Florida to Massachusetts and as far west as Dallas, TX. This summer plans are for an almost 7,000 mile road trip to Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Arches, Mesa Verde, Four Corners, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Hollywood, Pacific Ocean, and Cadillac Ranch. Another random fact about me - I don't have a high school diploma. (*cue the surprised emoji) Central High School of Philadelphia awarded me a Bachelor Degree. They are the only high school in the United States who confers Bachelors Degrees to students with high academic distinction; those not meeting the requirements are awarded a diploma. CHS was the second public high school in the US and holds national and state level distinctions for academic excellence.