BY RICK LASKY
One of the many great opportunities available in our great fire service is the ability to promote and move up the ladder. Whether you are a volunteer or a paid firefighter, the opportunities are there. How well one prepares to promote and then, if fortunate, gets promoted requires some planning or “promotional preplanning,” if you will.
Promotional opportunities have a strange way of presenting themselves. You could be lucky enough to work in an area that is rapidly growing and is building fire stations and hiring firefighters to keep up with that growth. Along with the growth comes promotions; and if someone isn’t staying awake (and it has happened), a fire department ends up playing catch-up, trying to fund the fire stations, apparatus, and personnel that should have been planned for in the first place. A friend of mine is going through this right now.
You could also be sitting in a fire station that hasn’t seen a promotion in years because of a variety of reasons. If you’re in the latter category, it can be hard to stay fresh and in the promotional preparation mode. But time and time again, we see firefighters and officers who decide not to prepare for and enter the promotional process because they don’t see any promotions happening within the list’s dates. Then, unexpectedly, someone retires and new positions are suddenly approved, leaving them wishing they had prepared and taken the exam. The best way to stay sharp and fresh is to prepare, enter the process, and see what happens. About the worst thing that could happen is you get better and better at taking the exams and stay just that much more current and on top of things. Don’t fall into the rut of remaining stagnant.
THE DECISION TO PROMOTE
When deciding to enter a promotional process, you’ll need to ask yourself several questions:
- Why do I want to promote to this position? If you’re a paid firefighter, is it for the money? Because it seems like the thing to do? Or is it to make a difference? Hopefully, that last one will be the biggest reason, but I understand that if you’re paid, the money might be right up there close. But, making a difference, contributing and knowing you have something to offer, should be the driving force. Individuals who don’t feel this way and are promoted often end up as one of those officers who don’t accomplish much and seem as though they’re just hanging out.
Don’t get all wrapped up in the “I’m only taking it for the experience” stage. You either are or you are not. If you are, give it your all and make it your best effort; otherwise, you’re really not going to experience much except for the process. You won’t know where your strengths and weaknesses are.
- Can I do the job? Hopefully, your answer will be yes—and a loud yes. If you’re not sure, maybe it isn’t your time yet. You don’t want to get promoted to a position for which you aren’t ready. It also might be that you need to talk to one of your mentors and see what he feels about your situation and whether you should go for it yet or not. But, we’ve all seen the firefighter who has been on the job for about a year and has seen a “little” action—I mean a little—and looks up front at the driver’s seat, usually at someone who has been driving for a while, and says, “I can do that; that’s not so hard.” Eventually, this firefighter gets there and after a while looks over to the right and sees the officer sitting there. He says, “Hey, I can blow the siren and talk on the radio; that’s not so hard.” And then once he makes it into that seat, he looks at the battalion chief and says (I hope you can see where I’m going with this), “Hey, that doesn’t look so hard; I can do that.” Eventually, he looks at the chief of department and says, “Hey, that doesn’t look so hard, either.”
It’s not bad to think you can do it better than the other guy; just don’t forget that it takes preparation and hard work to get there as well. You also don’t want to end up like the guy who gets on the “train of life” and starts out by saying all that matters is getting to the next station—that’s it. It’s sort of like, “If I get this firefighting job, that will be it; I’ll be happy for life.” But, as the train gets close to that station, he starts looking ahead at the next station, thinking, “Well, that’s not too far,” and just hurries past this one and gets to the next one. He now thinks he will be set; that will be it. Then again, when that station approaches, he gets the same feeling and just keeps blowing by each station, not experiencing much and, worse, forgetting to stop and enjoy life for a while. Such a person when retired ends up asking himself, “Where the heck did my career go? Boy, it sure flew by.”
- Can I make the lifestyle change required? This can be easy for some and extremely difficult for others. Most of us have been in situations where we said something or maybe even did some things that seemed right at the time only to realize later that to take on more responsibility, you have to be responsible. Know up front, early in your career, that the decisions you make and the actions you take as you promote can and will affect those who work with you and for you. Some of those things you did earlier in your career can hurt you for a long time. Make the changes necessary to handle those responsibilities early. “Changing shirts” doesn’t mean that if you were messing up or were a problem child before promotion that all of that will go away. We’ve seen plenty of people who were some of the biggest problems get promoted and then immediately come down hard on the guys for doing the same things they were doing just months ago. Take care of business early.
- Do I have the courage to lead? Being a leader takes courage—the courage needed to make hard and tough decisions, and I don’t mean just on the fireground. Sometimes as an officer, a leader, you have to make decisions that are not popular with the troops, many of whom are probably your friends. But, you have to make those decisions based on what’s “right” and not what’s “popular.” In the long run, you’ll be happy you did what you did for the right reasons. Making that leap from buddy to boss is not as easy as it seems. Ask those who will be honest with you if anything changed when they got promoted, and they’ll say YES! I can tell you firsthand that sometimes no matter what you do, no matter what your decision is, some of the guys aren’t going to be happy. No matter how well you think you’re doing—even when you think you’re doing a good job—some can make you feel as though you just can’t win. The bottom line is, no matter how hard you try, you’re not going to make everybody happy all the time. I asked a friend how he was adjusting to being a lieutenant;. He said, “You know, there are good days and bad days.” Then he pointed to his collar pins and said, “Some days they’re trumpets and some days they’re funnels.” Make decisions based on good solid information and integrity.
Start studying early, way before the promotional announcement. Why wait to start studying until the notice appears on the bulletin board? Arrange it so that when you approach the examination process it’s more of a review instead of the first time you’re cracking the binders on the books. Again, all it’s going to do is keep you sharp. Study with a friend or a partner. A lot of people are afraid that if they study with someone and help him out, he will score higher on the exam. I’ve always looked at it this way: I need all the help I can get, and if my study partner scores higher than I do, so be it. That individual was probably going to score higher anyway. Set aside some time each day to study, even if it’s just a small amount of time. Try to find a quiet area. It’s hard to concentrate at the kitchen table or in the day room. Find ways to test yourself. Truly become a student, especially if you’ve been out of school for a while. Try to build good study habits.
PROVIDE A GOOD PROCESS
If you’re a chief and have a say in the promotional process, make it fair and objective. Many people and some of my mentors helped me, and we’ve done really well. Without getting into the whole process here, probably the biggest impact has been that we conduct the process on the candidate’s day off, after a day off. This allows the candidates to be fresh; well rested; and in a good, clear frame of mind. It doesn’t seem fair to put candidates though a process, especially an all-day process, when they just came off shift and had been running calls all night while the other candidates were home sleeping. It’s a lot more work than a one-day process, but it really helps to even things out a little.
GOING TO DAYS
Getting promoted and going to days (Monday-Friday, 8 to 5) can probably be one of the most difficult changes to make. Not only are you leaving a “shift work” schedule, you’re changing things at home as well. Now you’re home every night. Let me say that again: Now you’re home every night! That can be a good thing, and we’ll discuss that in a little bit, but it is a major lifestyle adjustment at home. I know my wife at times misses her every third day of freedom. You know what I’m talking about. We’re best friends, but when you’re used to that break every third day, you miss it when it’s gone.
Now for some of the good stuff. Yes, you’re working Monday through Friday, but you are home every night. You are home for the holidays, all of them. You end up missing fewer activities with the kids and holidays with the family. Some love it. They take to it like a duck to water. However, some do not. Unfortunately for some, it becomes something really horrible and difficult and in some circumstances can strain relationships in the first family, the one at home. For some it may be a reduction in income because they’re not working their side job anymore on their days off. Either way, either situation, if the promotion you are going for means that you’ll be “going to days,” make sure you can handle the lifestyle adjustment. Doing that will save you many headaches and hardships.
Following are a few points to ponder when considering whether or not to “change shirts”:
- Form good study habits early in your career.
- Prepare to promote early in your career by making good decisions and leading by example now. Don’t get to a point where you’re playing catch-up.
- If you’re worried about the “skeletons in your closet,” stay away from the graveyard. (Think about it.)
- Set your goals relative to where you want to go early in your career, and then start preparing.
- Pick good mentors, and surround yourself with good people.
- Do a core values checkup. Are yours in order?
- Stay fresh by studying all the time, or at least often (whether you see any chances to promote or not; don’t fall into the regret trap).
- Test no matter what. Enter into the promotional process even if there are no openings; don’t do it “just for the experience.” Do the best you can!
- Remember that it takes courage to lead.
- Remember: Leaders enforce values; managers enforce rules. It’s important to be a manager, but in the fire service the scales are tipped just a little bit more to the leadership side.
- If you get promoted, always try to remember (and these are just a few) the following:
—Take care of your people.
—Make good decisions on good information, not emotions.
—Remember, they’re called “on accidents,” not “on purposes.” We all make mistakes.
- Spend time doing good evaluations.
- Don’t stop studying and learning about the job.
- Don’t give all of the orders you’ve been saving for years at your first fire as an officer.
- Probably the most important: Don’t forget where you came from.
RICK LASKY, a 25-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. Previously, he was chief of the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department and training officer for the Darien-Woodridge (IL) and Bedford Park (IL) Fire Departments. While in Illinois, he taught at the Illinois Fire Service Institute and Illinois Fire Chiefs’ Association and received the 1996 International Society of Fire Service Instructors “Innovator of the Year” award for his part in developing the “Saving Our Own” program. He is the lead instructor for the H.O.T. Firefighter Survival program at FDIC West and is co-lead instructor for the program at FDIC. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and serves on the FDIC, FDIC West, and FDIC East advisory committees.