Officer Preparedness

By William Shouldis

In the emergency services, change is inevitable. Fire and EMS officers will always face varied and complicated issues. Today, the public demands the delivery of a rapid response force. This requirement must be tied to cost controls. As organizational budgets shrink, the range of worthwhile fire and injury prevention programs continues to escalate. A department’s ability to cope with the operational preparedness, technology improvements, interagency relations, OSHA regulations, NFPA standards, and local directives will be compromised without a succession plan that connects the fire department’s mission (code enforcement, public education, response, and recovery) to individual job performance.

One approach is a structure orientation for newly promoted members. An option is to create a “homegrown” program. In the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department (PFD), grooming officers is a very formal process. Originally, it was a few days of recognized instruction. Then it extended to a full week of operational and supervisory review. Presently, it is a combination of a prepromotional college fire science program at the Community College of Philadelphia and Holy Family University and a postpromotional component at the Philadelphia Fire Academy. After a member is appointed as a company officer, there is a two-week curriculum based on an internal analysis that assessed the department’s resources in terms of strengths and weaknesses.

Unfortunately, seldom is there a perfect time for adding unfunded programs. Philadelphia is no different. Certainly, the PFD has faced many difficult economic decisions, yet the professional development of supervisors has never been compromised. In 2003, more than 200 members are projected to retire through a Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP); 55 are officers. Because of the mass exodus, it would be easy to cancel mid-level management training. Fortunately, this will not happen. A decision to continue “pioneering” programs at the local level is underway.

The current PFD plan is to continue reimbursement in the voluntary college-based fire science program and award “reward points” to promotional examinations. Then after being selected as a company officer, a member attends the mandatory 80-hour course. To ensure consistency, a chief officer is the program facilitator. The chief’s duties are to “fine-tune” the curriculum. The position requires research into NFPA 1021, Fire Officer Professional Qualifications; contact with the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education Committee (FESHE); review of Executive Fire Officer (EFO) papers; and discussions with instructors to avoid duplicating lesson plans. Interaction is the key. Instructors come from within the uniformed and civilian ranks. Specialists have been recruited to speak on special subjects.

The cornerstone of the Philadelphia Officer Development Programs is that fireground and fire station survivability skills must be honed before and after a promotion. Organizational guidance is a necessity.

Career development has many chapters. How to assist the interested individual in tangible ways must be planned and organized. Making the jump from blue shirt to white shirt is never easy. Combining classroom lectures, hands-on training, and personal experience must be the first step. How is your department preparing a first-rate emergency service for the future?

WILLIAM SHOULDIS is a deputy chief with the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, where he has served for more than 29 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy’s resident and field programs, teaching courses in fireground operations, health and safety, and prevention. Shouldis has a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and a master’s degree in public safety. He is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and a frequent FDIC speaker.

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