Exclusive interview with J. Robert “Rob” Brown, Jr, CEO of the IAFC

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The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) represents the leadership of firefighters and emergency responders worldwide. With members across the world, the organisation help and represent some of the world’s leading experts in firefighting, emergency medical services, terrorism response, hazardous materials spills, natural disasters, search and rescue, and public safety policy.  

The organisation aims to provide leadership to current and future career, volunteer, fire-rescue and EMS chiefs, chief fire officers, company officers and managers of emergency service organisations. International Fire and Safety Journal recently caught up with the CEO of the IAFC, J. Robert “Rob” Brown, Jr, CEO. 

Experienced leader 

In a career in the fire industry that has lasted more than 40 years, it is fair to say that there are few people that come with the level of experience that Brown brings to the IAFC. Having been appointed as the CEO/Executive Director of the organisation last year, he has added to a long list of achievements that go back to his days as a teenager. 

He received a bachelor’s at the University of Missouri in public administration and started his career in the fire service there as a firefighter paramedic. From there, he worked his way up through the ranks of Lieutenant Captain, Division chief, and assistant chief and spent 20-years as fire chief.  

A full member of the IAFC since 1987, the association is seemingly in good hands with a man that holds as much experience as he does. Brown reveals how his roles have varied throughout his time at the organisation: “I have a long history with the International Association of Fire Chiefs. I came to work on staff here at the IAFC and then took a two year leave of absence to go serve the state of Virginia as chief regional coordinator for Homeland Security and Emergency Management. 

“After that two-year assignment I came back to the International Association of Fire Chiefs. I worked on all of our projects in the Middle East and other areas of the country and then moved into my role as Deputy Executive Director.” 

In August 2019, the announcement was made that Brown would be taking over the role of CEO/ Executive Director on an interim basis. However, the pandemic changed the course of plans for the IAFC, and the role eventually lasted longer than expected, before leading to his appointment on a permanent basis. 

On this, Brown reveals how his permanent appointment was confirmed: “That decision was made by the Board of directors. I was appointed as the interim CEO in August of 2019 when the former CEO left. I served in that role and quite frankly, it was supposed to be a six-month role until someone was appointed permanently around March of 2020.

“They were supposed to make a decision on whether they would appoint me permanently or have someone else. March of 2020 is when the COVID-19 virus really started to impact the US and the rest of the world and I continued in that interim role because quite frankly, the board and I were just very focused on making sure that we supported our members through that. We remained resilient in both staffing and financially so that we could continue that work, and about a year went by before the role became permanent.” 

A change of culture 

As with any new role, the first port of call is always to set immediate priorities, and this process was carried out collaboratively between Brown and the IAFC board right from the moment Brown was announces as the interim appointment. With the board setting out the agenda, Brown was able to get to work on carrying out the work. He believes that key to the early goals was to change the culture of the organisation: 

“The short-term goals were to change the culture and to make sure that we were addressing our business model, our financial outlook and where the organisation needed to go. Those were the priorities of the board. As the CEO and Executive Director, I don’t set my own agenda. I take what the board provides and then we carry that forward and their interest was in changing that culture from staff driven to a member driven organisation. 

He concludes: “One of the main priorities I was given when I was put in the interim role was to shift the culture of the International Association of Fire Chiefs from a staff driven to a member driven organisation. What that really meant was we wanted to go out and get a lot more input from our members about where we should be applying our resources. We have also worked to become much more financially resilient. The industry was changing even before COVID, but that radically changed organisations like the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

“We have very few revenue sources and our largest sources are educational conferences that we put on. Obviously, during a lockdown you can’t have people gathered together for education. That was a huge hit to our organisation, so we had to pivot very quickly to not only to get the education out to the people that need it, but also to make sure that financially we could find other ways to fund the operations of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.” 

Leadership, education, service 

After a tempestuous period, many companies have been forced to pivot and adapt to continue their normal operations. However, there has been signs that for many of us, we can now start to focus on the fundamentals that the foundations have been built on, and this is certainly the case for the IAFC. Brown believes that despite obvious challenges, their goals have remained the same.

He comments: “The long-term goals of the IAFC have always remained focused around those pillars of leadership, education and service. In the leadership pillar the long-term goal is to continue to develop fire officers for the profession. It’s our job to make sure that we’re providing the resources to fire officers for them to further their knowledge. But it’s also our job to make sure that we’re developing a framework that allows for succession planning. 

“Each generation passes on the torch, and we need to make sure that that next generation is ready to step up and meet the challenges. The next pillar is education and we’re developing those and continuing to look for ways to get more education out.  

He continues: “The virtual platform has assisted us in getting a lot of our educational programs out globally to areas of the world that would never have had access before. Part of our future focus is how can we use technology smartly so that we can get the education and the information out. But we’re realistic and know that firefighters and paramedics, some are very human focused, so we can’t do everything virtually. We still have to figure out how we strike that right balance. Finally, our last pillar, service is really making sure that we’re promoting the service to our communities.” 

Crawl before you can walk 

As we enter a new year, we are able to reflect on the success that 2021 has brought, and for the IAFC, the year has been a success, even though it hasn’t seen the success of previous years. However, with the obvious challenges, a downturn in success is to be expected. 

When looking back on last year, Brown believes it has been more successful than anticipated: “2021 has been a very good year for the IAFC. It’s been a recovery year in several aspects. We were able to return to having our annual conference which we successfully held in the end of July. It was not as largely attended as in the past, but it exceeded our expectations. We were about 50% of what we would normally see, and we really thought we would be closer to 25 to 30%. 

“In 2022, we have deemed that to be a recovery year as well. My approach to this and the board’s approach to this is you have to crawl before you can walk and walk before you run. We’ve been crawling back into our duties as the pandemic has become more manageable, so we’re in the walk phase that in 2022 we want to make sure that we start to get our programs out in more of a normal pattern and increase the number of programs and initiatives that we have had in the past.” 

He concluded: “2022 is also being used by our board as a kind of reset year to where they will be coming together in late January to form a new strategic direction document. After that we will do foundational, strategic planning meetings with our divisions and sections committees and members from around the globe so that we can come out in 2023 with a very robust strategic direction and plan what will carry us through 2026. So that’s what we have planned for 2022. Obviously, we’re prepared to hit the curveball. but at a higher level, we’re using this year to continue recovery and plan for the future.” 

As the fire ground changes every year, and first responders are faced with new challenges, the support of organisations like the International Association of Fire Chiefs will be key in helping to shape the future of the industry.  

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