New Asheville Fire Chief Cayse focuses on training, diversity

LOOKING AHEAD: Fire Chief Michael Cayse began in his new position Jan. 2 and says he plans to focus on the professional development of his staff. Photo courtesy of the Asheville Fire Department

With over 34 years of experience in fire safety, few people understand the inner workings of a fire department quite like Asheville’s recently hired chief, Michael Cayse.

“Regardless of what community you are in or the size of your department, the mission of a fire department is always the same,” Cayse says. “Every community may have different interests and goals, but in the end, our job is to help citizens in their times of need, whether that need be a medical issue, a fire or a rescue. I am excited to lead the Asheville Fire Department with integrity while also continuing to further the outstanding reputation that makes us a leader within emergency response and fire service.”

As the new chief, Cayse plans to focus on the professional development of his staff, increase diversity within the department and advocate for more modern equipment, fire stations and technology.

“The Asheville Fire Department has always been really aggressive and responsive in their ability to put out fires,” Cayse says. “My goal for the department is for us to continue to deliver high-quality fire service while also ensuring that our people are best equipped for the future.”

Cayse officially started in his new role on Jan. 2, taking over from Deputy Fire Chief Chris Budzinski, who had been filling in on an interim basis. The previous fire chief, Scott Burnette, retired last June after serving 28 years with the Fire Department, the last 14 as fire chief.

Previous experience

An Ohio native, Cayse attended the University of Cincinnati, where he received a bachelor’s degree in fire safety engineering, as well as an associate degree in fire science technology. He also has a master’s degree in public administration from Northern Kentucky University.

Cayse says he got started in fire safety in 1986, serving as a volunteer firefighter for the Cincinnati area while in college.

“I initially got involved in volunteer firefighting because of another organization I was a part of, the Civil Air Patrol,” he recalls. “That organization asked me to get my EMT certification for the state of Ohio, and after I received the certification, I wanted to make sure that I could continue to use it. I went to one of the volunteer fire departments in the area and asked if I could run their volunteer ambulance to keep my certification active, and they agreed. At the time, I didn’t really have any intention of becoming a firefighter, but I loved the job and started taking on additional roles, which eventually led me to pursue firefighting as a career.”

Following his time as a volunteer, Cayse went on to attend the Cincinnati Fire Department’s recruit academy and began working as a full-time firefighter in 1990. During his career, Cayse served in various departments, including the paramedic unit, fire suppression and human resources, and as an instructor at the training academy. Most recently, Cayse served as the district chief of special operations, where he oversaw specialized search-and-rescue units.

Cayse says his experiences across the different roles within CFD helped make the transition to becoming Asheville’s fire chief easier.

“I think it is really important for employees of any organization to grow and see the different aspects of what the organization does,” he says. “My time with the Cincinnati Fire Department not only gave me experience, it showed me the challenges that the individuals I led were facing on a day-to-day basis. I think that knowledge will be very helpful as chief here in Asheville.”

Cayse also received several awards during his time at CFD, including a heroism award from the State of Ohio in 2001, the key to the city from Cincinnati in 2001 and a heroism award from the Syrian Shrine Firefighters in 2006.

Supporting the department

For Cayse, one of the most important traits of a good fire chief is the ability to support the department’s staff and understand its needs.

“I really see the role of fire chief as the enabler of the department,” Cayse says. “I think one of the best ways to do that is to ask questions. I want to know the biggest issues and roadblocks that the staff are facing, as well as what I can do to support them. They’ve lived in this community, they work in this community. All I need to do is enable them to do their job.”

Additionally, Cayse notes the importance of showing empathy to his staff, especially given the stressful nature of firefighting.

“This is a hard, stressful job, so I think it is important to remember that the firefighters are more than just employees,” Cayse says. “They all have families and lives outside of the department, so it is critical that we treat them with respect and have the awareness that they most likely have a lot going on in their world as well.”

Cayse says morale within the AFD is high, and it is his intention to keep it that way.

“One of the things that continuously amazes me about this Fire Department is how proud [the staff] is to serve and how much they believe in this Fire Department and its community. Right now, I do not see any signs of burnout or anything like that,” Cayse says. “In fact, I see the exact opposite. I see these firefighters very proud to come to work, very proud to put the uniform on and very proud to represent our city.”

While the AFD is operating at its full staff level of 292 employees, Cayse says there is still room to grow.

“We are at our authorized staffing level, but that doesn’t mean that we have everything that we want to grow,” Cayse says. “Like any organization, as we begin to recognize new goals and objectives, we could use a larger staff. For example, our community responder program is currently filled with people who are detailed out of their normal position on firetrucks. That then puts a vacancy into operations that we have to backfill over time.”

Cayse says he is actively working with Asheville City Council and the city manager’s office to fill the positions within the community responder program with full-time staff.

Looking to the future

As he gets settled into his role, Cayse says he’ll place a large focus on the professional development of his department’s staff.

“Professional development and training are a big priority of mine because I know from previous experience that individuals who are trained and supported are not only better employees, but also better supervisors and better responders,” he says.

Cayse also emphasizes the importance of diversity and plans to ensure that AFD is a “safe place to work for everyone.”

“Diversity, equity and inclusion are very important to me, and I really want to make sure that the department is a safe space that accepts and respects everyone’s backgrounds, beliefs and values,” Cayse says. “I believe that that department is already pretty intentional about equity and inclusion, so I really just want to keep that as a priority and hopefully continue to grow and evolve.”

Additionally, Cayse says he intends to further develop the department’s relationship with City Council and local law enforcement.

“Public safety isn’t one department or another; it takes all of us working together to achieve our goals,” he says. “You never see the Fire Department at a car accident without the police involved, just as you would never see police at a house fire without the Fire Department involved. It is very important that we all work together, and I think the city did a great job of fostering that environment prior to my arrival. I am just here to encourage that communication and collaboration to continue.”


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About Chase Davis
Chase Davis is an Asheville-based reporter working for Mountain Xpress. He was born and raised in Georgia and holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from LaGrange College. Follow me @ChaseDavis0913

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One thought on “New Asheville Fire Chief Cayse focuses on training, diversity

  1. Mike Rains

    Welcome to Asheville Chief. I hope we don’t disappoint your career move but I’m afraid it is likely. Asheville is like no other city you’ve been involved with. One thing worth considering: I don’think AFD should be allowed to “grow” in size until APD gets fully staffed up.

    I just returned from Denver CO; interesting twist of events going on there that could well spread nationwide. Denver police response has been cut back just like most cities including Asheville because of low staffing levels. What Denver citizens are now doing if they want/need some form of police response quickly and the police won’t commit is recalling 911 with a “medical emergency” which then brings the fire departmetn and EMTs. So at least they have some form of public “authority/protection” showing up quickly for their problem or concern.

    I hope that doesn’t start happening here.

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