Firefighter Training, Firefighting


John Norman

“On the morning of September 11, 2001, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) thought it had its succession plan all laid out, but the catastrophic events of that day wiped out all of these well-laid plans,” FDNY Deputy Assistant Chief John Norman explained as he answered the question he had just posed during his keynote presentation on Wednesday: “Why do you need succession planning?” Norman listed all the proposed candidates for the positions in the department’s Special Operations Command unit that would become vacant in the near term because of retirements. Among them were the position of the late Deputy Chief Ray Downey, director of rescue operations, and those of 94 other unit members. All were killed in the World Trade Center disaster. They were the unit members designated as successors to the retirees, those who were to run SOC for generations to come.

“The department could not have envisioned the losses that were suffered, even in the most in-depth risk analysis,” Norman said. “The department had to replace individuals that had an average of 16. 6 years of experience, which entailed recruiting and training new personnel. Yet,” he continued, “the job still had to get done. That’s where the breadth and depth [of a department] come in.” Also, it takes innovation. “During much of 2002 and 2003,” Norman explained, “we did things that no one else had done before. When asked whether we could do certain things, the boss usually replied, ‘Why not? If we need it, do it.'”

The mentoring process is a component of succession planning, Norman stressed. Departments have to look deep into their organization – beyond the obvious answers, he explained. “You still need people who can make the long hallways, but we also need people to get involved in other aspects of the job – people to develop the training programs, to come off-line and deliver them.”

Norman advocated “Management by Objectives,” wherein superiors select candidates for assignments with specific goals in mind. The objectives are to build the work staff’s depth of knowledge and expand the width and breadth of that knowledge base.

We are all measured in part by how we mentor others, how we bring others along, Norman said. All good bosses are teachers, and are always looking to help the unit and the organization. The mentoring process should not stop at any level, Norman cautioned. He cited advice he received from one of his many mentors when Norman was reluctant to move up because he was content in his position in rescue: “We need good bosses all the way up the ranks. How do we get them if good guys stop studying when they are content? Just because you’re happy, it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”

Norman observed: “We all serve for a relatively short term in the life span of the organization. A 30- or 35-year career is an opportunity to have an impact during that time frame. If you do it right though, it’s like picking Supreme Court justices: Your impact will continue for years after you are gone.”

His final challenge to the audience was in the form of a question: “What will your legacy be?”