Succession Planning: Identifying, Developing, and Retaining Quality Chief Fire Officers

Many organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, pride themselves on employee retention. In the long run, it saves money, improves morale, and provides stability to the organization. Retaining junior and senior fire officers affords similar, if not identical, benefits. Some chiefs still believe turnover, especially among senior leaders, is a good thing because it brings “fresh ideas” and new perspectives to the department. Although these are worthy advantages to pursue, the losses in goodwill and knowledge resulting from allowing career fire officers to leave the department sometimes outweigh these gains. The corporate knowledge, the relationships with community leaders and citizens, and the deep understanding of the community and the customer base are lost with this turnover and cannot be recovered simply by reading standard operating procedures or the standards of cover.

Retaining quality chief fire officers begins with identifying those with the potential to lead, which will be evident among junior firefighters. A strong development program will ensure a steady stream of talent ready to assume increasingly complex roles as vacancies arise. Finally, a strong leadership and culture will motivate these officers to remain with the department and develop new officers. Through proper planning, a department can identify, develop, and retain talented quality chief fire officers.

Identify

Once a department has committed to development and retention, it must next identify early on those with the potential to become chief officers. Three qualities will be present in these junior firefighters and aspiring officers; each is integral to the individual’s ability to be developed and retained: desire, aptitude, and commitment. Supervisors and managers should engage and mentor individuals displaying all three characteristics and provide them with development opportunities.

(1) Are we just training or are we developing? (Photo courtesy of author.)

(1) Are we just training or are we developing? (Photo courtesy of author.)

Desire speaks to an individual’s aspirations to lead. We have all come across the seasoned engineer or lieutenant with exceptional technical skill but no desire or ambition to be anything more. Some may not like the politics of managing; others dread the prospect of the administrative workload. However, those with the desire to lead will be evident. They will be self-motivated, volunteer for challenging projects, and seek every opportunity to learn. They will usually take ownership of their professional development and seek out advanced certifications or higher education.

Aptitude is the candidate’s ability to assume increased responsibility. Such individuals have demonstrated a considerable increase in their ability to develop and retain increased levels of knowledge and skills over a short period. They are also adaptable to a rapidly changing environment, showing the ability to adjust to unforeseen circumstances while still carrying out tasks. This can include in-station tasks such as managing staffing projections and daily crew assignments and extend to emergency situations like deteriorating fireground conditions. Ideally, these people will be coachable and receptive to constructive criticism, seeking feedback for the sake of learning.

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The individual’s commitment to the organization will be less obvious and more subjective. Individuals exhibiting desire and ability may do so for their own agenda and ambition. Although they are very capable of meaningful contributions, they are often awaiting other opportunities outside of the organization. Asking pointed questions is one method to gauge an individual’s commitment to the organization, such as, “How are you liking the department?” “What are your goals for the next five years?” or “Where do you see yourself a year from now?” Although many will not come out and directly say that they are looking elsewhere, those who are committed to the organization will make their commitment known. An individual’s willingness to take on long-term projects is another indicator of commitment.

Develop

Many fire departments and other business organizations fail at this stage by falsely equating training and development. Training is designed to enhance the knowledge and skills the employee currently requires. It is short-term and focused on improving the ability to perform specific tasks, which could include leadership training for junior officers, pump operations courses for engineers, or ropes and knots sessions. Training is essential for all personnel, and the department training officer should develop and execute an annual training plan geared toward maintaining and sharpening the knowledge, skills, and abilities of all members for their current job.

Development is more long-term and designed to prepare individuals for future assignments. Although training is job-oriented, development is more career-oriented, imparting skills and concepts that may not be used for months or even years after. These could include officer development courses, computer and other administrative applications training, and personnel management courses. Historically, per conventional fire department wisdom, recruits, firefighters, and junior officers should focus only on the training required to do their current jobs. The problem is, once an individual promotes into a position, he has to begin training for and learning that job. Once he masters the position and begins to perform at a high level, he is off to the next assignment. Another individual must begin learning the job held by that former worker.

The many informal opportunities for firefighter development include assignments to high-profile projects that offer an opportunity to learn a new process, such as maintaining and testing breathing apparatus or the care and cleaning of personal protective equipment (PPE). Being placed in charge of large projects such as these, even if only for one’s station, provides a wealth of opportunity. Focusing on more than just inventory, the individual should be encouraged to gain an intimate knowledge of department standard operating procedures (SOPs), contracts, national consensus standards, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health regulations. Once this member has become a subject matter expert on these projects, he should rotate to a new assignment.

Fire station rotations are another informal means of development. Different stations with different response area characteristics allow the member to gain experience in situations and responses that may not have otherwise been available. Examples include transferring an individual from an airport fire station to a station near an industrial area or from a suburban station to one in a busy metropolitan area. Each presents unique firefighting challenges, but each assignment provides training and response opportunities not offered by the other.

More formal development has specific objectives in mind. Often overlooked is training not necessarily focused on the fireground operations, such as conflict management and resolution, budgeting and finance, technical writing, and public relations. These skills are essential to the daily job requirements of even the most junior fire officers. Until they are in the position, many junior firefighters are taught that their job begins with the tones going off and ends when they sign back into the station. Thus, all training should be focused on what happens in between those two events. This traditional thinking does a disservice to the development of future leaders.

An officer development program is another formal development program. It should focus on the qualifications and abilities of the ideal chief officer for the department. The plan should outline development opportunities in writing, be available to all eligible personnel, and specify timelines for completion. This track takes a proactive approach vs. a reactive one and breaks the cycle of perpetual on-the-job training for most of the department.

Retain

Leaders are shocked when their top performers move on to other departments, even after they have invested significant time in identifying and developing the individual. There are a variety of reasons this may happen. Some deal with the individual, and some are driven by the organization. However, the reasons usually fall into one or a combination of three categories. The individual feels that there is a lack of opportunity for growth or advancement, he has lost faith in his leaders, or he feels that the organization no longer represents his values.

First, individuals with high potential and ambition will generally take responsibility for and be in charge of their development. They will seek the development opportunities mentioned previously—e.g., transfer requests, educational programs, or additional projects or assignments. When these employees feel that their need for development is not being supported or that their professional growth has not advanced at the rate they envisioned, they will seek these opportunities elsewhere. Some will do so through volunteer work and joining professional organizations, while most will seek employment with organizations that offer more opportunities for development and growth.

Next, middle managers and supervisors unknowingly impede the growth of individuals and deter their commitment to the organization. It is commonly known in organizational management that individuals leave leaders at a much higher rate than they leave organizations; bad or incompatible leaders are more often the cause of job changes than bad or incompatible co-workers or upper management. Like most organizational employees, firefighters want authentic and supportive managers and the opportunity to learn and grow while being inspired to do so.

An employee wants to feel valued. Nothing will devalue an employee more than assigning him to lead a high-profile project only to sideline him in the 11th hour when it is time to highlight the accomplishment. Some managers will take the findings and present them as a team effort or, worse, as their own accomplishment by omitting the efforts of others. They justify this by telling themselves they got the job done by delegating and using their resources.

Supervisors should support but not micromanage. They should focus on growth and development by offering individuals more challenging assignments, increased responsibility, and decision-making authority but most of all by encouraging the member’s autonomy. Allow the individual to interact on his own with senior management and present and highlight his work and accomplishments.

An employee’s commitment to the organization may wane, and the firefighter may no longer see the department as a place where he can continue to grow professionally while making a tangible and meaningful impact. An employee wants a strong culture and values and transparency. Salary and benefits are typically less important than development opportunities, strong vision and values, and opportunities to impact the mission. Take steps to identify what is retaining firefighters and what might be driving them away. Ask pointed questions: Are you being challenged? What can be done to increase your commitment? Are your strengths and talents being used?

Chief officers should keep a keen eye out for potential replacements. Although new officers from outside the department can have a place in every organization, the advantages of homegrown chief officers cannot be overstated. Take affirmative steps to identify, develop, and retain these individuals demonstrating high potential. Again, departments must invest in their talent. This investment can be a financial investment or an investment of time. One thing is true: If a department fails to invest in its top talents, another department will accept them with open arms, guiding them toward their full potential.

These talented individuals are ambitious, are highly motivated, and have high expectations for their careers. All of this work is worth the effort and will allow the department to develop a steady stream of talent and retain the knowledge and relationships that make the organization effective and successful.


CEDRIC PATTERSON is an assistant chief with Navy Region Mid-Atlantic in Virginia Beach, Virginia, responsible for the oversight of operations, fire prevention, fire department training, and CFAI accreditation for five military installations in southeastern Virginia. He began his career in 1996 as an active-duty firefighter at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma (Arizona), and entered the civilian fire service as a probationary firefighter at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas in 2000. Patterson holds an MBA in strategic management of organizations from the University of Houston-Victoria, a triple designation from CPSE (CFO, CTO, FM), and is a current candidate for the Public Leadership Credential from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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