Communication: A Key to Successful Succession Planning

Only after Harry Truman was sworn in as president did he learn that the United States possessed a weapon unseen in the history of the world: the atomic bomb. To most of us, it's inconceivable that our second in command may not be prepared to take command.

Fire department budgets seem to be our atomic bomb. How they’re projected, developed or administered often seem to be a secret. On becoming chief officers, many have commented that they're just seeing the budget for the first time. Their training has focused on incident management, not on administering and running a department. Often, those seeing the budget the first time are thrust into preparing a new one in a limited timeframe for the next fiscal year.

Succession planning isn’t new, but we continually train new and future officers in taking incident, but seldom administrative, command. Many of us may only be one heartbeat, one resignation or one retirement away from taking charge of a battalion or department.

Transition is further complicated if our "Truman" is an outsider. Tasked with leading while learning the budget will, inevitably, become one of the priorities. While every department has different needs, if you've invested in your personnel and yet feel the need to look outside for a successor, at least ask one question: why?

On an emergency scene, we build an incident-command structure from the first-due size-up through the operational phase, rehab and termination. Roles are defined and a system is put in place that assigns positions and delegates authority: as an incident grows, the incident commander who terminates the incident may not be the person who took initial command.

We need to work harder to do this internally: to build an administrative command system. If someone needs to take command, to administer, to budget, are you confident he or she has all the information needed to be successful?

For those looking to fill those future roles, don't wait for information to be offered. You can learn more by simply asking. I don't think budgets and other administrative functions are as secret as we've led ourselves to believe; it’s often just an assumption by those who work with these that the budget and administrative processes are known and understood by others.

How formally defined is your internal administrative chain of command? As a small department, our command structure consists of a chief, deputy chief and four captains (one per operational shift). In the event of a worst-case scenario or if our two chief officers can't be contacted, who's third or fourth in command? If the department needs legal advice to authorize emergency spending or has to make immediate operational/administrative decisions, do numbers three and four have both the authority and the right tools to make these decisions?

Define it now; plan for it now, so there will be no questions, no conflicts, should the need arise.

For those who believe that in the 21st century we're all always available via email, texts or cell phones, remember that Harry Truman only learned about the atomic bomb after he was sworn in as president; sometime information just isn't passed along as we think it is or should be.

In our profession, sometimes we must unexpectedly take or pass command; we should be able to do it off the fireground as well. We can plan to meet the element of surprise by preparing for it.

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