The Crescent Fire Station in Salford, England. (Photo by Craig Sunter.)
By Thomas A. Merrill
It’s happened in all of our departments: One of our members, who seemed to hold an office since the day we joined, suddenly steps down, moves, or passes away. Then, we scramble to find a replacement. The open position is not viewed as a glamorous spot, and nobody volunteers to take it. In some cases, we end up begging a member to take the office. But if and when he agrees, he realizes he really has no idea as to what he needs to do to properly fulfill the duties of that office. He asks, “Now what?” Unfortunately, there is no one to help guide him.
This situation can present a tremendous problem for departments. Having uninformed members hold an office can set an organization back and can even have a financial or legal impact when poor decisions are made and/or illegal—albeit unintentional—procedures are allowed to take place or required mandates are not completed regularly and correctly.
A well-designed and implemented succession program can help prepare members for the responsibilities of an office, allow for a smoother transition into the office, and ensure critical tasks are completed correctly and on time. A good succession program is imperative to help achieve long-term success in any professional volunteer fire department.
In many cases, the way to help a new officer more easily assume his new role is for members previously holding the office to work alongside him. Sometimes, a member leaving office is able to spend a year or more grooming his successor, or he is able and willing to mentor the new officer after leaving office. This is great, but problems arise when the former officer is no longer around because of him moving out of the area, resigning from the department, or even passing away. Unfortunately, there are times a member leaves office unwillingly through an election or a new appointment, and he has no desire to help the new officer. Sometimes, even the member being groomed for a particular office suddenly has to resign from the department. So, it is imperative to have a succession program in place.
Putting the program together is not always easy; even corporate America struggles with it. However, you can take steps to do it, and there are ways to ensure the important information needed for each office is passed on. Remember, too, that this isn’t simply for administrative offices; it applies to the firematic side as well. A plan must be in place to train and mentor new officers on both sides of the organization.
Your first step is to look at what your organization currently has in place. What is your department doing now to help guide and prepare new officers? How are they taught in not only what needs to be done but also how to correctly do it? What plans are in place to help new officers when no one is willing or able to assist?
When evaluating your current plan, ensure that you have put together clearly defined job descriptions and responsibilities for each office. This goes beyond what your department bylaws say. Spell out all that needs to be done. Doing this is a tremendous help for a new officer; it can also help lure prospective officers to an open spot because they are better informed as to what the job requires. If you don’t have clearly explained job descriptions and roles written down, I encourage you to assemble a team to begin the process.
Because some aspects of these jobs are required to be done at certain times of the year, it’s important to note when they should be completed. Some are weekly or monthly, but others may be yearly. Help new officers by providing a timeline for those important tasks. They can look at the calendar for a quick reminder to complete an important job such as scheduling the ladder testing, calling the department auditor to arrange for the annual financial audit, or remembering to request permission from the governing board to participate in a yearly community event. A calendar of events is a very useful tool that you can pass on to new officers.
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In addition to job descriptions and information on when jobs should be done, also spell out how to do these jobs. Write down step-by-step directions or, if certain forms or documents are needed, have the directions indicate where these documents are located. For example, when I became our department’s secretary, one of the required tasks I was expected to do was file members’ New York State Exempt papers. When I took office, I had no idea how to do it. I knew I had to complete official paperwork, but I had no idea where that paperwork was or even what to do with it. The former secretary who had done the job for years had left the area, and nobody else was able to help. It took me a considerable amount of time and effort as well as a few phone calls to members of other departments to better understand the process. This experience made me determined to make sure this didn’t happen to whoever took over after me. As a matter of fact, it made me determined to make sure it didn’t happen with any of the offices I have held over the years.
So, for the secretary’s job, I made sure that filing members’ exempt paperwork was listed as one of the job responsibilities. When writing down the directions on how to file the paperwork, I made sure to indicate location of the applications and other required paperwork.
You can take steps like this for all the important jobs associated with the various offices within your organization. You can even do this to help guide members when first using your department’s computer system and to assist officers in understanding how to input important information into the computer programs used for record management.
Another helpful tip to work into your succession program is to make readily available all the forms and documents an officer needs. You can even provide templates for annual reports an officer is required to prepare. Hand off these forms and templates between officers through thumb drives or external hard drives. Even when doing it this way, I always favored storing them on the main computer network at the firehouse; this ensures the reports are always available and if, for some reason, the thumb drive is lost or not passed on, the new officer can get everything he needs right off the firehouse computer. Also create file folders on the computer network and label them by the office name. The folder can house these templates along with the job directions, the calendar, and other important items for that office.
Even if your department does not use computer software for records management and report filing, you can store all of this information in the tried-and-true method of file folders. You can put these in file cabinets, sorted by office. When a new officer assumes office, the folder is handed to them, and he has plenty of information to get started off on the right foot.
Once all this information is compiled, it only needs to be reviewed and updated from time to time. As new office responsibilities surface, remove some that are no longer done. The good thing here is that once they are written down, keeping them updated is relatively easy and not time consuming.
Nobody holds an office forever. Properly preparing a member for a new position on both the administrative and firematic side of the organization is a responsibility that is shared among all officers. Taking the time now to put a succession program together ensures continuity and consistency within the ranks and will contribute to the long-term success of the professional volunteer fire department.
Thomas A. Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at email@example.com.