Succession Planning: Leave the Fire Service Better Than You Found It

BY STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI

REMEMBER THE SAYING, “ASK NOT WHAT YOU CAN do for your country but what your country can do for you”? Apply that to the fire service. How do you plan to leave the fire service in a better condition than when you found it? The fire service is only as good as we make it; all of us-volunteer, paid, and future firefighters-have a tremendous responsibility to make the fire service better and to leave it in a better condition than when we found it. Besides being the right thing to do, it is necessary for the fire service’s long-term survival and success.

Succession planning is a hot topic today, because a great number of experienced firefighters are retiring from departments across the nation and because we are not able to provide our members with sufficient hands-on experience. What have you done today that will leave the fire service better than when you found it? Are you planning on being just a “slot filler” (someone whose name is on a roster of personnel assigned to a department, but nothing more), or are you someone who continuously plans to make the fire service better? I don’t know about you, but when I get involved in something, I want to do my best and also leave the situation better than when I found it.

It doesn’t matter what role you play in the fire service-chief, assistant chief, deputy chief, battalion chief, captain, engineer, firefighter, fire inspector, or fire department secretary-you are involved in the best profession in the world, and you need to do your part to improve the fire service.

Following are several ways you can leave an improved fire service when you go.

Get published in trade journals. If you think hard enough, I’ll bet you can find something you can share with the rest of the fire service through a published trade journal article. Most fire service and EMS publications have author guidelines on their Web sites or somewhere inside each issue. What are you waiting for? You may think you will never get published. With that attitude, you won’t try; then you certainly will not get published.

Review and follow the author guidelines and take a chance; what do you have to lose? You might think your ideas are not worth reading, but somebody out there will think it is worth reading. I’m always learning something new each month when I read the latest issues of the trade magazines.

Write a book on how to do something better. Put your money where your mouth is-if you think you have some better or new and improved information to share with your peers across the nation, by all means look into getting those ideas on paper and write a book. It may be tough finding a publisher to sell and market your book, but many fire service personnel have self-published their books just to get the information out there.

Become a fire service instructor. Not everyone is meant to be an instructor; however, the fire service is always looking for quality instructors willing to share their knowledge, skills, and abilities. Become an instructor because you want to be a positive influence on others, not for the money.

Colleges are always looking for quality instructors to train and educate their students. Assignments can include lectures or lab/skills sessions. I enjoy teaching at the college level, because there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a student progress from the first day at the college to a full-time position after a couple of years of hard work and effort. Getting a phone call or an e-mail from a student saying he was hired at such and such a department makes my day.

Annual fire service and EMS trade shows and conferences are advertised in every fire service trade publication. However, before you take on a teaching assignment at this level, get extensive teaching experience at the department and the college levels first. Work out the bugs locally before you take your show on the road.

Become a positive change agent. It is very easy to sit at the kitchen table or in the recliner and complain about the things you perceive to be negative and how the department should do something better. Instead of just voicing your problems to others, become part of the solution.

Get promoted, and take on special assignments or projects. Go through the chain of command. Get involved with the union local to ensure you are all on the same page.

I learned very quickly that although I could complain about something, nothing would probably get done to resolve the problem unless I started doing something about it. So, when I see problems, I try to fix them at my level and through the chain of command. I am not always successful, but that’s okay. At the end of the day, I can say I gave it my best shot and that maybe it just wasn’t the right time for this change. It doesn’t mean that I will give up or not try again in the future. I will shelve the change and move on to other things, waiting and watching for the appropriate time to resurrect the change I would like to propose.

Be a safety advocate. The fire service suffers 100 firefighter line-of-duty-deaths every year. Fires are going down nationwide, but the firefighter fatality and injury rates stay constant. Inculcate in everyone the idea that they are their own safety officer and that they also are the safety officer for others. Just because you are at an incident and someone is functioning as an incident safety officer doesn’t mean you can let down your guard and stop worrying about safety.

Safety starts with each of us and our good habits. At a large incident, one incident safety officer cannot be everywhere. That person will be lucky to see only a fraction of safety violations. Practice what you preach; be a safety role model and advocate in the fire service. Our family, our department, our coworkers, and the public we protect should have a high expectation that we will arrive home safely at the end of our shift.

Participate in your union local. Although many people think that unions are in place just for improving the wages and working conditions of its members (the primary reason unions exist), many fire department union locals get involved with other issues, such as participating in community events, volunteering for local charities, doing things to make the community a better place, and being big brothers or big sisters to youths in need of guidance. Whether you want to become a part of the union local executive board or just a contributing member, doing something more than just paying dues and showing up at meetings, there are always opportunities to make a positive difference within your department and your community.

Be a fire service advocate. On and off duty, we need fire service members nationwide to be advocates of the fire service-advocates of what we do, what we stand for, why we do what we do, and how valuable we can be to the public. Firefighters nationwide need to be united and do everything we can, on and off duty, to educate people about the positive things we do. Instead of telling your friends or others about the great wages, benefits, working conditions, or pensions you receive, tell them about the positive things you are doing to make the world a better place.

I cringe when I hear people outside of the fire service say they wish they were firefighters so they could work only 10 days a month. Forget the fact that even working 10 days a month typically means we are also working more hours per week than the average person working a 40-hour week. People are more vocal about how we get paid for sleeping. Ouch!

Yes, I know we are doing a job most people would not or could not do; but in their eyes, it doesn’t matter. When you hear people making negative comments about the fire service, educate them on the things we do or experience or are ready to experience at a moment’s notice.

Respect your customer, and treat everyone the way you would like to be treated. I would bet you heard this from your parents when you were younger: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. It just makes sense to do this. Keep this in mind when you are responding to the same house for the third or fourth time in one shift for the same situation, such as a person having trouble breathing but who keeps refusing to go to the hospital. As frustrating as it might be for you to want to force the person to go to the hospital, you cannot do that, to the best of my knowledge.

Keep a smile on your face, and attempt to educate the person, point him in the appropriate direction if he needs specialized services, and treat him with dignity and respect. Why? First, it is the right thing to do. Second, you are on the clock, getting paid to help people. It’s not up to us to decide what the definition of “help” is. We just respond to assist the people who called 911 and do our best to make their day better.

Get involved with fire service committees, organizations, and associations. They should be inside and outside your department. Don’t limit it to just the fire service. Many community organizations are looking for people to get involved. Don’t be part of the problem; be part of the solution! Get involved to make a positive difference as opposed to sitting in the recliner at the firehouse complaining how and why this department stinks.

Mentor a junior firefighter. You are not going to be in the department forever; there will always be junior firefighters and fire service personnel. Take the time to bond with the future members of the fire service and share your knowledge, skills, and abilities. It could be a probationary firefighter or someone just off probation. Regardless, we are obligated to pass on our knowledge to our coworkers in a tactful, respectful, and nonpreaching way. We learn through on-the job training, formal and informal education and training, and watching and listening to the experiences of others.

Get involved in the community you serve. Don’t just come into the community to work and collect a paycheck; get involved with the community you serve. Obviously, your fire department would benefit if you lived in the community you protected, but that is not always possible for various reasons.

Continue your training and education. Nobody is ever fully trained or educated. If you have not completed a two-year degree in fire technology, what are you waiting for? Besides setting a great example for your children and family members, you will also set a great example for your coworkers and peers. If you have a two-year degree, consider going for a four-year degree in any area. Just because you have no desire to promote in the fire service at this point in your career doesn’t mean you won’t change your mind later. It is more difficult to juggle family, work, and other commitments when you are in your 40s and 50s.

Become an expert in a fire service-related field. We are all experts at something. If you haven’t figured out where your expertise lies, do so! Then, share your knowledge tactfully and respectfully with others. Get published, become an instructor, and be the go-to person your department cannot do without.

The fire department and fire service will still go on after you are gone. It may not be the same place without you if you were a positive influence and a change agent, but life would still go on. Don’t just do things to leave your legacy or to be remembered positively. Do them in a selfless, sincere way and for the right reasons. Your sincerity will show.

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI is a 15-year veteran of the fire service and an acting battalion chief for the Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department. He is an adjunct faculty member in the Chabot College Fire Technology Program, in Hayward, California, where he has been teaching fire technology and EMS classes for 14 years and served as fire technology coordinator for almost five years and EMT program director for seven years. Prziborowski is president of the Northern California Training Officers Association executive board and is a state-certified chief officer, fire officer, master instructor, hazardous materials technician, and state-licensed paramedic. He has an associate’s degree in fire technology, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and a master’s degree in emergency services administration and is participating in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.

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