Apparatus & Equipment, Firefighting, Leadership

Practical Fire Service Succession Planning

By Tom Warren

Like me, most firefighters I know began their careers with someone watching out for them as they navigated through the early years of their careers. There was always someone there in the firehouse that had your back and kept you going in the right direction. It was an informal relationship that was not required of anyone but was real in many firehouses. The firefighters who guided us were usually older, experienced firefighters who seemed eager to keep the new kid out of trouble, both on the fireground and working through the administrative maze of the fire department. Most of us realized early that there was someone there in the firehouse who we could trust and who could answer our questions without judgment. We understood that these firefighters were watching out for us and only wanted us to succeed. They were mentors, teachers, and advisors and usually they became lasting friends. As the years passed, we would often find ourselves becoming that older experienced firefighter for some other new kid, passing on what we learned from our experiences in the ways we learned from that older experienced firefighter years ago. When my friends and colleagues began the climb up the career ladder by becoming company officers, we could always find another officer that could help guide us as we took our first command. The older officers whom we worked for were often the go-to people when we needed guidance. The two week officer-training program we went through when we were initially promoted certainly did not teach us everything we needed to know when we took command of our first company. Just like our early years, there was an older experienced officer there to provide the guidance we needed when we reached out. And just like our early years we found ourselves mentoring new fire officers when we became more experienced ourselves. This is part of the rich tradition of the fire service that sets us apart from other professions. Traditions such as this have at their foundation the concept that our work has real consequences and is not merely about profits and the bottom line. What we do matters and we as firefighters know that better that anyone else.

This informal mentoring process is similar to the private sector formal succession-planning program where prospective candidates are trained in a formal setting to assume the next highest position in their organization or join the management team. Similarly, we can find the same type of formal training in the military. In many companies in the private sector, this process is referred to as a “Management Trainee Program” and in the military it is referred to as “Officer Candidate School.” Whatever the name, the goal is preparation and it is the same for both the private sector and the military. As for the the fire service, the informal in-house mentoring provides firefighters and officers with the training, guidance, and support that is necessary for successful transitioning into positions of higher responsibility. This informal process of transitioning to positions of greater responsibility has been very successful for many years in the fire service without a formal program in place to meet this universal need. The difference with the private sector and the military is that most of the training and mentoring occurs prior to the assumption of a new position, whereas in the fire service the training and mentoring occurs following the transition (promotion) to a position of greater responsibility. This is especially true with promotions to chief of department and assistant chief positions.

When a line chief is promoted into an administrative position, things become very different for the newly promoted chief. This transition brings into focus a new and unfamiliar set of skills and responsibilities. First there is the work schedule, leaving a rotating work shift for a traditional work schedule that is the mainstay of most American workers. This alone will require adjustment for the chief and his home life. Next comes the realization that nothing he has studied has prepared him for the work required to keep a fire department running. The day-to-day issues will no longer include deciding how to sectorize a building fire or planning multi-company drills, but now will include issues like when to reorder housekeeping supplies or how to respond to a discrimination lawsuit.

The new administrative chief will find the days are filled with new responsibilities. The role of the administrative chief and the chief of department is akin to the CEO of any corporation. As I was once advised by an older chief, “None of it is very sexy.” Keeping that advice in mind, we also know that there is a great responsibility with these administrative positions. The fire chief must accomplish a great deal and is solely responsible for the organization and its people. The chief is at once:

  • The mentor for his organization;
  • The person responsible for keeping department within its budget;
  • The person who keeps pace with advancing technology;
  • The person who directs professional development;
  • The person who administers an active grant-writing program;
  • Responsible for maintaining discipline and morale;
  • Responsible for planning and setting goals;
  • Responsible for keeping the department true to its mission and vision;
  • Responsible to respond to fires and emergencies;
  • The public face for the department;
  • The person who must interface with other agencies such as the police and emergency management;
  • The person who works cooperatively with governmental agencies and elected officials;
  • Responsible for maintaining productive community relations; and
  • Responsible for monitoring legislative activities that affect the fire department and its operations.

Larger departments that have administrative staffs can provide some exposure to the various responsibilities each administrative chief is responsible for. But for smaller departments, there is only one fire chief and possibly an assistant chief, and it is nearly impossible to acquire the experience and knowledge that is required for this position while serving as a line chief. Even chiefs of larger departments find it difficult to provide effective succession development because of the expanding responsibilities found in the modern fire department administrative office. As departments grow in size, so does the scope of its activities. Weekly meetings where line and staff chiefs discuss the projects that they are working on are not enough to provide the sound footing required when transitioning to the next rank. It takes a focused dedication on the part of the fire chief to adequately develop the administrative and line staff in a way that prepares them to be ready to assume the responsibilities of the next chief. As difficult as this is to accomplish in paid full-time departments, it is exponentially more difficult to accomplish this task in volunteer fire departments.

The process to achieve effective succession planning in any fire service organization will require focus and discipline on the part of the chief. The process will not be the same for all departments and certainly must be tailored to the environment that the chief works in. It is important for the success of the organization to prepare for the future, and although it may not be part of any study materials, it is the chief’s responsibility to prepare his department for the future through its junior chief officers.


The chief should start with the captains. The captains are the bridge from the working firefighters to the chief‘s office. Scheduling time to meet with the captains on a regular basis (monthly or bi-monthly) will provide the mechanism needed to gain input and encourage their contributions. The chief should not mask his intentions about these meetings, but should be very clear that the goal is to foster the concept of succession planning first and foremost. Additional issues can also be resolved, but the focus must be on preparing the captains to develop the skills and knowledge required to be an effective chief officer beyond the fireground. The meetings will take the captains beyond their fire company and force them to focus more on global issues facing the department and set a vision for the future. The chief should review the short- and long-term issues that the department must deal with and look for input and ideas to solve them. It will not be necessary to assign the captains projects or additional duties, but rather allow time for discussion and understanding. The chief may find that most of the captains have never spent much time thinking beyond their own company level or the relatively minor issues like overtime and contract issues. The chief can start with some basic needs of the department like standard operating procedure (SOP) development, training goals, apparatus/equipment purchases, and line chief command issues, and can gradually build up to topics that are more substantively administrative in nature, such as grant writing, budgeting, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, facilities management, communication/management skills, and the department’s relationship in the governmental structure in which it exists. The chief should also stress the importance of professional development and earning college degrees as part of the succession planning preparation for transitioning to a higher rank.

The end product should be that the captains understand what the role of the department is with respect to its mission and its numerous responsibilities both today and for the future. The captains will come to understand that they must prepare themselves for the future now to be effective later in their careers. It is no longer about a single fire company in a department; now it is about the many components that must come together to position the department for success in the years to come. If the chief is truly successful with these meetings, the captains will see that the future of the department is in their hands. The captains will broaden their perspective of their place in the department and better understand the challenges that both they and the department face. Those captains who are inspired by the chief will prepare themselves to meet these challenges. And for those captains who choose not to enter the administrative side of the department, at least they will have a deeper and more global understanding of what is involved in the operation of a modern fire department.


The next step for the fire chief is to expand the understanding of the department’s operations with all junior chief officers. These junior chief officers are positioned to assume the role and responsibilities of the chief of department in the near future. It is critical that the fire chief instill in these junior chief officers the scope of what lies ahead for their careers. Like the captains, the fire chief should hold regularly scheduled meetings with all junior chief officers. These meetings should be held on a much more frequent basis than the captains, perhaps even weekly, and the junior chiefs should be given projects, assignments, or collateral duties that they must work on and be responsible for. The tone that the fire chief must set is not simply to expose the junior chiefs to the administrative requirements of the department but to engage the junior chiefs and cause them to take some responsibility for the management of the department at the present time. As with the captains, this will take some junior chiefs out of their comfort zone, but at this point of their careers it is vital that the fire chief makes it clear to every junior chief what is truly required to manage a modern fire department. Perhaps even more importantly it is vital for the junior chiefs to understand the fire chief is the one person in the department who is accountable for the department as a whole. The fire chief is accountable to the firefighters, the mayor, the city council, and taxpayers as well as to everyone who lives, visits, and works in the fire department’s jurisdiction. The responsibility of public safety rests on the shoulders of the fire chief each and every day.


There are many practical ways in which the chief can prepare junior chief officers for their next promotion, but the most effective method is through direct participation and counsel in the careers of the junior chief officers. Let’s take a look at some of the effective methods a fire chief may use in addition to regular meetings to prepare junior fire chiefs for their transition into the administration of a modern fire department. Junior chief officers need not learn every detail of every aspect of this program but they should experience every aspect to some appreciable level.

First and foremost, the fire chief must be a strong advocate for advanced degrees and enrolling in National Fire Academy programs, such as the Executive Fire Officer Program. Enrolling in these types of programs demonstrates that a junior chief serious about preparing for the next promotion, shows dedication and follow-through by registering and completing these academic programs, and establishes the junior chief as someone who is keeping current in the many different disciplines of fire department management. Bringing these newly acquired skills and education back to their department will benefit the whole organization.

The fire chief should include junior chief officers in the many aspects of human resource management by participating in disciplinary hearings, conflict resolution, diversity issues, recruitment programs, and related litigation. Human resource management is very difficult and often avoided by junior chief officers, but it is an essential part of effective leadership. The fire department cannot operate without talented people and the fire department has a responsibility to treat its members with respect and as professionals.

One of the most important documents that guides daily operations in any fire department is the collective bargaining agreement that the fire department has with its labor organization. Junior chief officers should be involved in the negotiations when these collective bargaining agreements are negotiated and participate in grievance hearings when rights issues arise. They should know and thoroughly understand this document and comply with it at all times.

As important the collective bargaining agreement is to firefighters, the budget is equally important to the mayor and city council. This is another document that must be understood and complied with. Junior chief officers should be included in the annual budget process in both its creation and its approval by the appropriate city agencies. The fire chief should invite the junior chief officers to all budget hearings where this document will be explained and defended. It is important for the junior chief to understand that many of the must have line items in the fire department budget will be questioned and must be defended. Well-intentioned public officials will question line items that we in the fire service consider necessary, and we may at times find that some public officials are not always well-intentioned. This simply is an essential governmental process that is necessary for any democratic governmental body to function. The fire chief will find that this governmental process is as foreign to junior chief officers as it is to most line firefighters; it simply has not been part of their fire department experience. The best way to understand and manage this process is to experience it.

Decision-making in the administrative setting is much different than decision-making on the fireground. Junior chief officers will need coaching on the decision-making process and the ethical components of sound decision-making. Keeping an open posture with respect to the decision-making process is important with the exception of personnel issues, which should always remain confidential. The important lesson is that the chief will be held accountable for all decisions that he makes.

Apparatus and equipment needs are areas that fire officers and junior fire chiefs may have some experience with. Most fire officers have a keen understanding of what equipment and apparatus is new to the market and whether it is something that would be needed in their department. Fire apparatus, for example, is not replaced often, so when the time comes for replacement the improvements from the old apparatus to the new apparatus will be quite dramatic. Fire officers and junior chief officers will know in detail what equipment and apparatus is needed but in almost every case they will have no knowledge of how to navigate through the purchasing process. The fire chief must include fire officers and junior chief officers in this process beyond the committee that develops the equipment and apparatus specifications.


Practical succession planning is key to the professional development of the people in every organization, be it the private sector, military, or in the fire service. In the fire service, the close relationships developed in fire companies along with the study preparation for promotional examinations will prepare firefighters as well as junior officers to meet the responsibilities that promotions at the company level will bring. As for the administrative and leadership responsibilities of a fire department, it falls squarely on the chief to develop a succession planning program that will serve the future needs of the department and prepare its members for this new dynamic. It really is not that difficult for the fire chief; he simply has to motivate the junior chief officers and share with them that which he already knows. The reward a fire chief will receive for this effort is a legacy of wisdom and being a benefactor to those who will follow him.

THOMAS N. WARREN has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University. He is a faculty member at  Bristol Community College.