Selecting Future Fire Service Leaders

By Thomas Warren

The future of the fire service to a great extent depends on the wisdom and vision of our leaders. The future leaders of the fire service must have experience, compassion, education, political tenancy, and creative thinking to be successful people and department leaders. To be effective, future leaders will need to be respected by the community they serve and many organizations beyond the fire department. For this reason, the methodology process by which fire service leaders are selected must produce distinguished fire service professionals.

The ranks of lieutenant and captain provide the foundation for successful future leaders. The promotional process to these ranks should be based on experience, training standards, and testing. When it comes to the chief officer level, a completely different set of standards are necessary. Promotions at this level affect the entire fire department organization and its future; therefore, criteria that meet this distinction must be added.

There a many methods for selecting fire service leaders; most are flawed in one way or another. Some are overly weighted toward seniority; some have a low passing grade for a written test (65 percent), and many are simply political appointments. Some methods employ bias review panels, and some employ distorted labor union input. There are many other flawed evaluation components out there as well. The selection process must be a fair system that every firefighter understands from the first day of his career. Every firefighter must know what is required to become a chief officer and understand that he has an opportunity to become a chief officer, perhaps even chief of department. Firefighters must be encouraged to use their time to prepare for leadership positions from their very first day. In the private sector, this concept is called “succession planning.” This leadership concept can be adopted in the fire service as well.

Proposed Promotion Process

Any promotion process for a chief officer’s position should be comprised of several components that measure the person’s ability to effectively lead a fire department organization in today’s political and economic environment. These components should be given a point value which can be totaled for a final score to produce a numerical list of candidates. The system must have consistency from person to person and from year to year. The promotional process should begin with an official announcement from the department announcing the application period and the number of candidates that will be selected. Fire captains with a minimum of five years of experience (time frame to be determined by the department) should submit a letter of intent and a resume within 15 days to headquarters to be considered for promotion. The promotional system should, at its core, contain the following components.

1. Written test with a minimum passing score of 80 percent that includes study materials from relevant sources such as department general orders, adopted textbooks, department training bulletins, hazmat operations, department rules and regulations, and department standard operating procedures (SOPs). Non-professional sources such as collective bargaining agreements, city ordinances, city charters, and nonpublished policies should not be included.

2. Completion of National Incident Management System training 100, 200, 300, and 400 levels.

3. Professional certifications and departmental contributions such as grant writing, EMT certification, hazmat technician, SCUBA dive team, National .Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, 2009 edition; NFPA 1521, Standard for Fire Department Safety Officer (2008 edition); and NFPA 1041, Standard for Fire Instructor Professional Qualifications, and department committees such as SOP, apparatus/equipment purchase committees, training committee, health and safety or awards Committees

4. Educational achievements must be included and encouraged. College credits and degrees should be assigned a point value in this process. Successful completion of National Fire Academy courses should also be included in this category.

5. The department should offer training programs on a regular basis that can be assigned a point value and added to the scoring process. These training programs enable department members who wish to keep current an opportunity to do so.

6. An assessment center consisting of three chief officers from neighboring departments should conduct an assessment based on three components of leadership: incident command/fireground tactics and strategies, human resource/discipline, and administration management.

7. Candidates will be required to submit a resume chronicling their career and achievements and should be prepared to discuss it with the assessment center panel.

8. A component that will subtract points from a candidate’s score must be considered. Candidates’ disciplinary records would be reviewed and those who have not kept up with the department’s vision will lose points toward their career advancement. Candidates who have received departmental discipline will have points subtracted from their score based on the severity of the infraction. A schedule of infractions and associated point values must be established prior to implementation of this program. The assignment of a point value cannot be arbitrary and must be validated through personal records.

By using this outline as a design concept, a department can customize its chief officer promotional process based on its needs and circumstances.

Looking at leadership in the context of a total career endeavor will allow members of a department time to focus on their career and build the skills necessary to assume leadership positions. A program such as outlined above will keep members constantly engaged in their career and focused on the department’s mission while building their professional development. Perhaps, most importantly, this approach will distinguish the department as a well-trained and educated professional organization.

This promotional system will produce fire service leaders with the qualities that will allow them to be effective within their department and, equally as important, outside the department when advocating for the needs of our modern fire departments.

THOMAS N. WARREN has more than 40 years experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as assistant chief of department from the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University.

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