Firefighter Training, Leadership, Legal

The Peer Process: A Jurist Approach to Firefighter Promotions

By Rusty Sullivan

Every year across United States and around the world, fire service agencies and brigades attempt to promote their best and brightest hopefuls to the next rank. These new candidates will fill the voids left by seasoned lieutenants, captains, and chiefs. These voids are being left by retiring fire service leaders who have been hardened by years of real-world “need a hydrant” fires and pre-airbag/seat belt vehicle wrecks. These weathered fire service leaders have forgotten more about the hostilities of firefighting and the intricacies of rescue than most textbooks could ever print. It is these incredibly experienced officers that we are attempting to replace. Do you see a problem?  

As large fires are becoming less common and firefighting tactics are become less aggressive and more defensive in nature (we can explore opinions about this in another paper), new fire service leaders are getting fewer and fewer real-world experiences. It’s often called on-the-job training–we all have had that gnarly old John Wayne-looking captain lead us into a blazing house fire only to stop us in mid-fight to watch the fire dance and build over our heads. These grizzled old captains took their time amidst numerous emergency opportunities and nerve-racking structure fires to teach their juniors and their replacements the unwritten skills of firefighting and, more importantly, leadership.   

As these teaching opportunities become less available, it is these seasoned captains who hold the keys to that intangible information on which candidates may have the subjective skills to lead future firefighters. As front-line supervisors, these captains work daily with each firefighter, engineer, and junior officer, building a mental store of memories and experiences with each of them. If used effectively, these historical evaluations and experiences will prove to be more predictable of the future performance of subordinates than all the written tests, assessment centers, and interviews put together.

Most, if not all, organizational psychologists will assert that a person’s past performance is the best predictor of that person’s future performance, whereas interviews (assessment centers are simply a practical skills version of an interview) are notoriously the worst predictors of future performance. If a horse wins 10 races before the Kentucky Derby, its odds of winning go up. If the same horse has proven to be unsuccessful in the past, its odds go down. [Peter, does this make sense to you?] Past performance and future performance are reflective of each other. The same parallel is true for sports figures: the more touchdowns a quarterback makes, the more valuable he becomes. In an effort to predict future performance, it is important to understand who and what information we are measuring and assign real value to its past performance.

How does this apply to the fire service promotional processes? Currently, most fire department administrators want or ascribe to what could only be considered (or at least seen as) an objective-style test. These tests consist of two main sections or areas of competencies. One measures mostly one’s ability to read, write, comprehend, and calculate math problems; the other simply measures one’s ability to compete in a given physical test in a given time frame. These two tests are often used as a simple measure of competency (whatever that is) that allows the candidate to proceed to the subjective interview, interviews, or assessment centers, as the case may be. The interview or the assessment center is most often the deciding factor in the fire service promotional process. With a simple look through the candidate’s evaluations, judgment is passed, a blessing bestowed, a party thrown, and the new fire officer is conferred. I hope you understand this is a slight tongue-in-cheek simplification of the fire service promotional process, but you get my point.

The fatal flaw in this traditional process for promotion is that it lacks the essential predictors of future performance. These traditional promotional processes simply take a narrow snapshot of a candidate’s abilities in time. The assessment is reflective of only that candidate at that time, in that place, with a candidate’s personal understanding of those instructions by a single facilitator. A more accurate evaluation of a person’s future performance would be to use the scientific approach or the collection of data from multiple sources over a longer period of time. The more data collected on a subject, the more accurate the results regarding that subject (numerous promotional assessments given over a longer period of time will produce a greater accuracy in evaluating one’s performance or abilities). This information, in turn, will produce greater predicting values of future performances.

Although a series of promotional examinations would be more accurate, one could imagine the stress related to this type of test, the uproar from rank-in-file, the complications of scoring, and the time it would take to administer the numerous processes. I am sure that with some brainstorming, even these issues could be overcome, but there may be a simpler solution. Remember, the underlying information we are looking for is past-performance data on the participating candidates. These past performance data on each candidate have been collected–formally and informally–by fire service officers from multiple sources for a very long time.  Leveraging this informational resource (the company officer in the case of a captain’s promotion) would seem to be a reliable alternative to the former. 

In most, if not all, organizations, motivated and trained small teams are used to achieve high-priority goals. The Navy has its SEALs. The Army has Green Berets. SWAT is in law enforcement. Special rescue teams are in the fire service. All have been established to handle very specific objectives. In the private industry, the same holds true: focus groups, task forces, and boards of directors have all been established to guarantee the best possible outcome given specific information and time restraints. The old adage, “Two heads are better than one” is more often true than not; organizational psychologists call this concept group wisdom.

How can we use these two concepts–past performance is the best predictor of future performance and motivated/trained small teams having a higher positive achievement rate–to our advantage in the promotional process? For simplicity sake, let us focus on the captain’s promotional process (although a variation of this concept can be used for any process). What group of people would best understand a candidate’s (in this case the aspiring captain’s) past performance? Who would have the best knowledge of his work history, education, and motivation? Who works side-by-side with the candidates? The answer, most truthfully, is the captains themselves. They have the best view of a candidate’s’ true performance and, therefore, the candidate’s future performance.

Criteria and performance requirements for a given rank and promotional test should be set by the specific fire department based on its needs and hazards. Establishing position competency through prerequisites, testing, or both is fundamental to any promotional process. Each prospective candidate who meets these standards of competency should then be allowed (assuming there are no legal disqualifiers) to proceed to a selection phase, where a panel of captains (in this case) would arrive at a consensus on which qualified and competent candidates would best execute the duties of a fire captain. 

It is important that a series of hiring and discrimination classes that are part of every Fire Officer I & II course be conducted before the selection panels are assembled. The department’s chief may also have information on candidates or the process that the panel should consider or at least be made aware of. Once the metaphorical door closes, the panel, using all relevant and legal information, should arrive at a consensus and rank the order of the candidates for the chief’s approval. The process of consensus may be as varied as the panel itself. This constructive conflict and leaderless group leads to a positive candidate selection.

Positive self-image, a self-superiority bias, group wisdom, and outcome severity are the concepts that make these types of systems work successfully and consistently. Every healthy person has a positive self-image, some more than others. Believe it or not, we also all have a self-superiority bias. We all think we or our group is slightly better than the next group. Each group sees itself as superior to the other: management thinks it is better than the rank-and-file, A-shift thinks it is the best shift, station 2 believes it does more than station 3, medics believe they work harder than EMTs, and we believe we are better than the citizens we serve. Now, do not freak out and become defensive! This concept is a normal part of psychology. It only becomes a problem when we cannot see past these biases and prejudices. 

Group-wisdom and outcome severity are also concepts that will ensure a positive process. As a general rule, a group of educated people will have a better positive outcome than a single individual. Once again, “two heads are better than one” is the guiding rule. The more diverse the flow of information and opinions are, the greater the overall wisdom of the group and, in turn, the better the success of the group. Sometimes group-wisdom is mistaken for group-think. Group-think is a process where generally a dominant or powerful person sways a group of weaker or less powerful people to the dominant position. Group-wisdom, on the other hand, is a manifestation of those of equal power in collaboration with one another seeking a common goal.

Outcome-severity has proven to be one of the biggest predictors of group success. The greater the severity or consequence linked to the outcome of the group decision, the greater the likelihood of a positive assessment (the best choice). Groups tend to understand the importance of their decisions on the greater good of an organization or community. Groups or teams will generally take their charge very seriously, especially when that group is personally affected by the outcome, as in the case of leadership appointments.

In short, when a group selects companions to assist in completing an important charge, it will select those similar to them or at least similar to the way they see themselves.  In this case, assuming you have good captains, they will naturally select good or even better officers than they are. Add the department’s requirements, training, outcome severity, group-wisdom, and the insurance of candidate competency and you create a process that captures all the essential elements for promoting the next best officer. 

There is a slight assumption on my part that the fire chiefs trust their current officers, or at least most of them. The renowned psychologist Douglas McGregor divided management mindsets into two categories: “theory X and theory Y.” McGregor explains that the “theory X” manager assumes that people in general are lazy, dislike work, and are relatively unambitious. McGregor’s “theory X” suggests that most people must be coerced by punishment to accomplish organizational goals. In turn, McGregor states that a “theory Y” manager assumes that work is as natural as play and most people are not only willing to do work but are wanting of work.  The theory suggests that people seek and desire responsibility and will apply self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of organizational objectives without external control or the threat of punishment. My assumption is that most people, given the responsibility and training, will do the right and competent thing if allowed to do so. Needless to say, this promotional process has a “theory Y” perspective, as I have.

Group psychology is a complicated issue, but I believe the peer promotional process is based on sound and accepted psychological principles. It has been proven from the beginning of time that teams and groups are better equipped to not only survive but to prosper. Competent and lawful self-selecting teams and groups were responsible for moving man outside the cave and across the globe. The Navy SEALs, the Army Green Berets, SWAT in law enforcement, and special rescue teams in the fire service have been self-selecting competent candidates for many years with phenomenal results. 

The peer-promotional process truly rewards the firefighter who builds a fire service career on a solid foundation of education, training, hard work, commitment, and respectfulness. It is based on a career of personality behaviors, not a situational behavior found on a single day at a single point in time. A colleague of mine, Captain Ronnie High, said it best when he described the fire service promotional process as the great race. He said, “Do the best you can that day, at that time, in that order, and you win the race; stumble or fall even in the least, and you lose the race regardless of how hard you have trained or how good your past performances have been.”

Inside, probably most of us want to be “theory Y” managers; most leaders even proclaim to be “theory Y” managers. The truth is, we are not. There is some “theory X” in all of us. We all see ourselves as having the better direction or more knowledge than others (remember the self-superiority bias–it is only when we cannot look past that bias that it becomes a problem).  As leaders, we all publicly pronounce that we trust our officers and tell them that we believe in their abilities. We trust “them” to push controlled medications. We trust them to do invasive medical procedures; search, rescue, attack fires in burning buildings; and lead others into dangerous and complicated situations. Why should we not trust them to select a peer based on given criteria? Selected, motivated, and competent officers need not have the same ideas, mindset, or dreams as their leader. If treated fairly, ethically, and justly, motivated and competent fire officers will follow their leaders in any fair, ethical, or just direction.

Rusty SullivanRusty Sullivan is a fire captain for the city of Grandview, Missouri, and the assistant chief of training for the Metropolitan Community College Public Safety Institute in Independence, Missouri.