Develop New Officers for Organizational Success

BY KENNETH CLINE

All departments—fire or emergency medical services or career, volunteer, or combination—experience a constant and continuous challenge with young or new officers. These officers can set the tone for the organization and can have positive and negative impacts within the department. We must realize, accept, and understand this challenge to allow departments not only to maintain themselves but also to grow and develop.

These officers may be young in age and perhaps just out of the academy; others may be relatively new to the department, having limited seniority or experience. When officers change badges or trumpets, they can be considered new (at least to that position), even though they may have many years of experience within the department, another department, or just life in general. The promotion of new or younger officers occurs periodically but predictably in any organization. Some departments may have a sudden and large-scale change; others may have a slower progression. How have these promotions impacted your organization, and what have you learned from them? Can learning from these experiences ease future transitions?

Youthful officers can possess an internal drive or enthusiasm that many of us have lost over the years. An older member or employee who is promoted can become reenergized with youthful enthusiasm regardless of age, rank, or position. Sometimes, youthful members or employees may have a little more drive than senior colleagues and have excess time because they do not have the same life and personal commitments as older officers or employees. These members may be able to spend more time at the station or take more classes than the older officers. This can create some resentment, especially at promotion time. It is not an easy challenge to overcome, and solutions are limited. Older officers just may not be able to take every class under the sun, and sometimes they may get left behind when a younger officer appears to be more progressive and dedicated.

 

GENERATIONAL EDUCATION/TRAINING

 

Generational differences are present in every organization. These generations are referred to as veterans, baby boomers, generation X, generation Y, and nexters. Each of these generations was brought up differently and has ideals common to its era. Each of these groups has defined goals, morals, loyalties, beliefs, values, and coping mechanisms. All officers, regardless of age and rank, must be aware of these differences so that they will have a better understanding of their coworkers and can better relate to the other members within the department. On many occasions, I have seen officers of equal rank who could have been father and son or mother and daughter or grandparent and grandchild working beside each other toward a common goal. It is difficult not to stereotype or treat coworkers as you would a child, a parent, or another relative the same age. This mix of generations can be beneficial if managed properly, but it can also create strife and hard feelings that can disrupt the effectiveness of a crew and an organization.

Educational and training levels cover academic and job- or emergency-related training. Basic college classes such as interpersonal communication, psychology, and sociology can give the student more insight into and a better understanding of many issues, particularly those related to personnel matters that arise in the fire/EMS services. Structured officer- or management-related training can also provide valuable knowledge of how to work with others. Other types of formalized training, such as law enforcement or paramedic schooling, will teach skills or beliefs firefighters may not possess—for example, police officers and paramedics are taught to work independently and to become rapid-fire decision makers, both difficult traits when working in a team-oriented (company-based) environment like firefighting.

Fire departments should use the National Fire Academy (NFA) as a resource for developing their officers. The academy offers many courses that assist officers in learning new skills and renewing that “youthful” energy.

A technology-savvy officer may prefer computer-based training whereas another officer may prefer a classroom setting or more of a hands-on approach. Technology has also changed the way we communicate and play. Last year, I (kicking and screaming) traded in the old analog cell phone and ended up with a new digital contraption that I could not figure out without a book and a teenager. Very quickly, I learned that text messaging was the preferred way to communicate with some of my crews. I also remember when the preferred firehouse leisure activity involved a deck of cards; now, it is difficult to walk into any station and not see a pile of people gathering around a TV screen with an X-box, Playstation, or Wii in the middle. Unfortunately, video screens and controllers can’t teach you how to check the transmission fluid on the rig. Maybe someday a controller will be created that has a throttle and 25 valves or levers to operate (that just happens to be the number of moving parts on the pump panel of Engine 7).

Just as video games can provide a “learn and practice” environment, so can simulation and role-playing exercises. Recently, I asked a new lieutenant, “Tell me what would you have said on the radio if you saw smoke coming out from under the door in apartment 308, and what would you have done next?” The use of these role-playing practices can be very beneficial to a young, new, or developing officer. These “simulated” scenarios will help develop that “slide tray” of previous experiences that we rely on when making critical decisions. As discussed earlier, actual “live” experience is decreasing; we must provide other avenues for gaining experience.

Have you ever heard someone say, “The kid can’t tighten the blade on the chainsaw, but he can fix the computer every time it crashes”? This creates a new challenge, too; older and senior officers need to train younger members on older techniques like swinging an ax, but how do the rookies or new members go about training their leaders and officers on new technology and gadgets? Each has the opportunity to share knowledge and skills for the benefit of the organization and, ultimately, the public we serve.

 

MECHANISMS FOR PROMOTION

 

How do we get young and new officers? Of course, a promotion places someone into a new position with new challenges, new responsibilities, and sometimes a new realm of emotions. Pride, anxiety, accomplishment, and even fear can emotionally affect an officer who has just changed badges. Promotional or placement processes are as diverse as departments themselves. Career departments may promote strictly from a competitive process (testing), by seniority, and maybe even by interviewing. Sometimes, it may be a mix of practices. In other organizations, it may be by a simple vote among colleagues or a governing body.

Although some may consider a test to be nothing more than a memorization contest that is more beneficial to a select few, it does ensure that a specific knowledge base is at least reviewed by all participants. The use of seniority does, in a way, reward members for their length of service, but it can also show favoritism. For the most part, with seniority comes experience; this can be a check-and-balance system to promote the most experienced. Complicating this concept is the fact that fires are decreasing and EMS calls and other calls for help are increasing. You can argue that a five-year paramedic has actually run more calls than a 10-year firefighter and has more experience in dealing with the public and making decisions. Interviewing allows candidates to express their ideals, beliefs, goals, and plans to improve the organization in general.

Voting usually favors the popular candidates. Unfortunately, many times the most qualified or capable leader is not the most popular, and the most popular person may not have the appropriate qualifications or experience for the position.

Assessment centers are becoming more common in many areas of the country. They provide a mechanism for choosing the most potentially effective officers. Ideally, the assessment center concept allows for an independent process that evaluates all candidates equally and impartially. This can include interviews, written tests, and scenario drills. Outside evaluators can also be brought in to reduce the chance of preferential treatment and provide unbiased evaluation.

 

PROS AND CONS OF NEW OFFICERS

 

How does a young or new officer impact a department? Obviously, the officers will need time to establish a foundation. They may be challenged by those under and above their level of authority—a test, if you will, of where they stand and what they will allow or enforce. Some new officers will try to immediately “make a splash.” Others will go the opposite direction and will try to remain “one of the members” and not accept the new responsibilities. Many older or experienced officers, as mentioned earlier, will be rejuvenated and will try to make changes that they have talked about for years. Unfortunately, their energy is a little quicker and more intense than what those around them are comfortable with, which leads to resentment and contention.

On the positive side, the new energy of new officers may spur other officers to keep up or even try to get ahead of the one with the new badge. The new officers’ enthusiasm can also become contagious to coworkers and subordinates, giving them excitement and a refreshed attitude toward the business. Sadly though, when the new officers’ energy levels begin to subside or if they become discouraged, it will reflect on the entire company. New officers are more likely to want to obtain further training for their new position and may want to take others along for the ride; let them. They will also obtain this “new” knowledge and try to bring it back home and challenge others into supporting a different concept or a better way.

We can reduce the negative impacts of promotions and support growth. First, we must develop processes that ensure that the new or young officers are capable, competent, and qualified for the job. This is not simple; it must include standardized knowledge and skills specific for each position—job- and people-related knowledge. At the same time, we must ensure that this person can lead the followers instead of following the crowd. Leaders must do what they can to provide the opportunity for all officers—and members, for that matter—to acquire this knowledge, whether at the NFA, local colleges, or even local business leadership development programs.

A benefit to developing a promotional list for a position is that it enables you to begin preparing that individual for the upcoming changes about to occur. Too many times, I have heard this promotion-orientation process, “Be at the doctor for a physical at 10:00 a.m.; report to station 1 on Wednesday; stop by the office next week and pick up your badge—and oh, by the way, congratulations.”

We need to make efforts to ensure that the “new” officer is aware of and comfortable with the new job description, responsibilities, and expectations and has the opportunity to discuss any concerns. With elections, the change generally takes effect on a specific day at a specific time. Either way, we need a process that includes a training and an orientation period.

We also need to develop and enforce all-inclusive policies and guidelines to ensure that all officers are kept to the same standards and expectations. No officer should be allowed to overstep or fail to fulfill his responsibilities and duties. Subordinates shall also know and be expected to obey department policy. A lack of written policies on discipline will sometimes promote disruptive actions, whether intentional or not, that cause unnecessary challenges for all officers.

Succession planning and mentoring are also good approaches to helping and preparing others to fill your shoes. All of us in one way or another have been given a helping hand to get where we are, and we must strive to give the same gift to help someone else get ready for the future.

As mentioned earlier, we need to encourage knowledge, skill, and ability sharing up and down the promotion ladder. That is much easier said than done. Communication is as critical during nonemergency times as it is at an incident scene. Fortunately for our business, thorough written policies and guidelines can provide many of those messages, but especially for younger and newer officers there needs to be a lot more face time and discussion to ensure that their needs are being addressed and met.

Once we accept that having young or new officers is an issue that will never go away and its effects and challenges will change as society and technology change, we must ask, “Where do we go from here?” The answers are effective promotions and education, thorough policies, and fluid communication. We need to evaluate and, in some cases, improve the entire promotional process, giving thought to many factors to ensure competent and effective leaders are selected.

As administrative leaders and managers, we must ensure that we are providing not only tactical emergency business training but also people business training. Your personnel are the most crucial resource you have. We must provide effective (black and white) policies and guidelines to reduce the (gray) interpretations that challenge your officers. Remember: Developing good young and new officers makes for good chiefs and, ultimately, for a better and safer organization right down to the newest “rookie.”

KENNETH CLINE is a career captain in Charleston, West Virginia. He has a bachelor’s degree, maintains paramedic certification, and is a participant of the National Fire Academy (NFA) Executive Fire Officer Program. He is a former volunteer chief and an adjunct instructor for the West Virginia Department of Education and the NFA.

 

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