Company Officer Leadership: Preparing Chief Officers

When someone describes the fire service as “100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress,” does it conjure nostalgic images of the good old days or does it make you shake your head in disappointment that our profession is resistant to anything new?

As chief officers, we often get frustrated with the automatic resistance of the rank and file as we work to move forward with needed improvements. However, are we guilty of the same resistance when it relates to fire prevention and life safety?

Look back at the career path of the last five fire chiefs in your department. Most likely, you'll find they started as firefighters and worked their way up through the operational side of a department. You’ll also likely find a history of many leadership, management and command courses.

If you’re viewed as a great fireground commander, the myth suggests you’ll make the best chief officer. If we want to change the fire service to a proactive mindset rather than the current reactive model of focusing on fire suppression, we must change the chief officer-development pipeline.

It's probably unrealistic to think that most future chief officers will not come from line personnel. Fortunately, this doesn't present an insurmountable obstacle if we use using early education and officer development.

Early Education

Firefighters develop their attitudes on issues over many years. Chief officers must hire, develop and support rank-and-file personnel to create a culture that embraces fire prevention and life safety. This begins with the selection process.

Traditionally, we've looked for candidates with the skills to be good firefighters. That shouldn't change; however, fire prevention is an essential function of the job. Part of the selection process must screen out those who won't be committed to the fire-prevention and life-safety messages.

Making the right hire is only the first step. Step two is to educate new recruits on fire prevention and life safety. Fire departments must commit to the whole-hearted integration of fire prevention into recruit curriculums rather than the age-old response, “We don’t have time in the academy to add that.”

If you're serious about a cultural shift, consider the Institute of Fire Engineer’s Vision 20-20.

Believe it or not, that's the easy part. You must continue to focus on prevention and life-safety training throughout the process. Requiring monthly training on fire-prevention topics is as important as monthly training on other basic skills. There's a wide range of online resources available for this, such as the National Fire Academy’s Coffee Break Training series.

Officer Development

If the hiring process is akin to plowing a field and training the rank and file is like the planting seed, officer development is fertilizer and rain. Building on the foundation is essential, but getting officers to take fire-prevention courses can prove difficult.

We all like to take classes on the topics we're familiar with, those we can use in our current position or those that will help us move up in the organization. Mid-level officers need regular exposure to high-level risk-reduction courses. This can be through conferences and symposiums such as Fire-Rescue International or the Institute of Fire Engineer’s Models in Fire Prevention Symposium, through webinars from a wide variety of providers, or through attendance at National Fire Academy on-and off-campus courses, to name only a few.

High-quality courses build credibility with the attendees and demonstrate the department’s commitment to fire prevention. If you never bring in or send personnel to prevention courses, officers will perceive it isn't a real priority.

Likewise, adding fire-prevention responsibilities to midlevel line officers tie the courses to current responsibilities. This could include the responsibility to attend neighborhood association and civic group meetings, adding prevention metrics to personnel performance appraisals and having midlevel officers coordinate fire-prevention efforts within their areas of responsibility.

The final step is to make it clear that fire-prevention and life-safety credentials will be evaluated in promotional processes, particularly for chief officer positions. Interviews should consider how candidates have demonstrated a commitment to fire prevention and life safety and how they'll take a leadership role in this area.

Give preference to those who're professionally credentialed as Chief Fire Officer/Fire Officer through the Center for Public Safety Excellence. The credentialing process ensures continued competency in fire prevention and life safety.

You probably think this sounds pretty aggressive, and you’re right. You can think of all the reasons this won’t work or believe it'll take too many resources you don’t have.

Ultimately, it’s your choice. Do you take bold steps or do you succumb to tradition? The “100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress” mentality rests on our shoulders.

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