Developing Your Professional Development Program

By Sal Scarpa

Every organization has its share of challenges. The fire service is no different. In fact, fire departments today are still reeling from the recent economic downturn and struggling to come to grips with the new normal. It has not been easy for some and harder than it should be for others. Some were disadvantaged from the start. The economic blows just added insult to injury.

Struggling organizations are facing a multitude of challenges, chief among them the fact that decades of institutional knowledge are lost in many organizations as Baby Boomers retire in droves. In their place, newly promoted company and chief officers are grappling with organizational deficiencies and challenges that are indicative of departments that have failed to properly develop their bench strength. We are handicapping our next generation of stars by not equipping them with the developmental tools they need to be successful. Professional development programs (PDPs) are in dire need of formal attention to enable our new leaders to be successful.

Formal Professional Development

What does this mean? What is a PDP after all? Poke around a bit on the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Web site ( and you’ll come across the IAFC’s Officer Development Program (ODP). This program is designed to prepare officers at all levels for future advancement, while at the same time giving them the skills they need to excel in their current position. A PDP simply takes this process one step backward and incorporates the firefighter. It is a comprehensive program designed to develop our next generation of leaders and offer firefighters and officers (at all ranks) developmental tools and a format to be achieve success and satisfaction in their current role.

Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about training. Training is incredibly important; and I am huge proponent of comprehensive, realistic, and consistent training programs. But professional development is more than training. In fact, training should be a component of formal PDPs. But training is only one element of a formal, comprehensive PDP, which should also include formal education, experience, certification, self-development, and out-of-the silo exposure.

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The focus of a comprehensive PDP is ensuring the well-rounded, incremental maturity of our members. It should be delivered at a pace that they can absorb and be successful. To be successful, it should allow for employee personalization. It should be a tool that an employee and their supervisor use for growth throughout his/her career. A formal PDP ensures that the individual is engaged in the process to formulate and craft their development in order to meet their personal and professional goals. The program should be beneficial for both the organization and the employee. Employees should gain fulfillment in their career from meeting their goals even as organizations profit from having enriched, capable, and enabled employees.

Let’s take a step back. What tools do you require to be successful as a firefighter or a company or chief officer? You need to hone skills requisite for your position. Firefighters work on suppression activities, extrication, and medical capabilities. This skill set enhances their ability to be effective in their job. Similarly, the company officer works on enhancing his or her situational awareness (thanks, Dr. Gasaway), focused size-up skills (thanks, Chief Terpak), and reading smoke (thanks, Chief Dodson). The officer is developing leadership ability to manage people and resources. The chief officer is also engaged in enhancing developmental capabilities. He or she fine tunes that strategic developmental focus, looks over the horizon, and positions the organization to proactively engage the future. All of these efforts are designed to foster personal and organizational success.

Taken on their own, these efforts enhance the abilities of the firefighter, company, and chief officer; in the context of a comprehensive PDP, they develop an individual and foster job satisfaction. The focus of the PDP is as much preparatory as it is focused on enabling success in the present. Many organizations spend a great deal of time and effort preparing our members for the next step. Sometimes this is done out of necessity, as rampant retirements thrust unprepared members into new roles with “sink-or-swim” expectation. Yet, there is minimal effort focused on ensuring our personnel have mastered their present position and responsibilities. The “drive-thru” experience of selection, preparation, and promotion is not enabling our personnel to fulfill the entirety of their roles and handicaps their confidence moving forward.

Consequences of Inaction

Consider the department whose development is dysfunctional. Employees have been engaged in doing what they were told for years with little input in identifying and honing needed skills and traits. Do you know officers who lack command presence or are poor time managers? Instead of a personal needs assessment and fulfillment program, they are provided disjointed training aimed at checking boxes and meeting minimum standards. The employee’s personal and professional goals are, at best, an afterthought to a regiment of exercises that are reactionary to the forces thrust upon the organization. In the end, unfulfilled and unprepared prospects are cast into new roles as company and chief officers with a disjointed understanding of the expectations laid upon them. This also results in a disadvantaged posture to move the organization forward.

The outcomes of forestalling a PDP for our employees are deceptively far-reaching with regard to our organizations. As employees are promoted up by circumstance, they lack critical skills necessary to be effective as company and chief officers, perhaps because they did not fully develop them as firefighters. Firefighters that are cheated out of the opportunity to learn and master their craft become poor instructors to their successors. Critical skill sets are not mastered and have negative impacts on the fireground, potentially endangering personnel and the public. As these firefighters are promoted to officers, they lack confidence in their ability and have difficulty making decisions on their own.

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Officers who fail to learn leadership skills are challenged almost immediately upon promotion. They will struggle in dealing with other members, particularly those who are more experienced and those who are older. As a result, conflicts will characterize their experience. Moreover, undeveloped skill sets will become evident in such areas as deficient time management ability, lack of diligence in completing assigned tasks, a failure to prioritize responsibilities, and an inability to grasp the larger picture. Their relationships at all levels will suffer along with their credibility.

Finally, chief officers who have not had the opportunity to benefit from a comprehensive PDP can have the most profound impact on an organization. Not only are they disadvantaged in their own development, they are hampered with a disadvantaged cadre of officers and firefighters. The compounding effect stifles organizational growth and impedes leadership from anticipating challenges or foreseeing opportunities. As a result, the organization is continually reacting to the forces that act upon it

Impacts of a Successful Program

Organizations that take the time and effort to construct and implement a formal PDP benefit on a multitude of fronts. For starters, the employee is engaged in identifying gaps in understanding and development that prepares and enables him or her to be successful in current and future roles. As a result, there is personal fulfillment and job satisfaction to complement personal enrichment, maturity, and development, positioning them for future success. Imagine the impact on your organization if members are engaged in their developmental process. The dreaded performance appraisal that is often avoided suddenly becomes a joint exercise in professional development that engages members in structuring their future.

Organizationally, the department has invested in the future of the employees and positioned them to make lasting, positive contributions. They have created change brokers who are empowered to impact their organizations with programs that enhance their skills and promote organizational maturity. Vacancies in leadership are filled with enabled leaders capable of moving the organization forward. This dual success propels the organization forward and enables it to withstand challenges that result from transitioning bench warmers to change agents.

Make no mistake, a formal PDP is not just for the leadership in an organization. A comprehensive PDP should be developed for each organizational level: front-line personnel, first-level supervisors, mid-level managers, and senior leaders. My focus here is on the supervisory and management level of an organization, but it truly begins at lowest level possible.

The good news is that much of the groundwork for a formal PDP has already been done for us. The IAFC has developed the Officer Development Handbook, a valuable resource that can be the foundation for any organization’s PDP. The handbook provides a foundation and explanation of several of the basic tenets of a formal PDP which you can adopt and build upon within your organization. It allows each organization to develop a product that is comprehensive, customizable, and designed to follow members throughout their career.

Ongoing challenges and a changing operational environment are forcing organizations to be adept and flexible in their strategic initiatives. Staying ahead of the curve is an ongoing exercise requiring leaders and managers in our organizations to hit the ground running and remain engaged and effective throughout their careers. Consider the emerging leaders you are developing in your organization. Are you doing your very best to enable and prepare them to be the next generation of leaders? Or are you handicapping them and fostering a developmentally dysfunctional department?

Sal ScarpaSal Scarpa is the deputy chief for the Shawnee (KS) Fire Department. He has served more than 24 in the fire service for both career and volunteer fire departments and is a national presenter on leadership issues. Sal has an associate’s degree in fire science, a bachelor’s degree in public administration, and a master’s degree in leadership studies. Sal is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program at the National Fire Academy, recognized as a Chief Fire Officer (CFO) by the Center for Public Safety Excellence, and is a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers (MIFireE). You may reach him at or

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