Succession Planning or Succession Program?

When the topic of succession planning comes up, many fire chiefs and municipal administrators roll their eyes or stare off into infinity, wondering what they’re supposed to do. Some think it means they have to pick their successor, some see it as padding the pension plan of senior employees, and others believe it’s about seniority. Gone are the days where the longest-serving member becomes the next chief because it’s his or her turn.

I believe part of the problem is the name, succession planning; too often, chief officers think this means they have to develop a plan for who will succeed them. I prefer the term succession program.

A succession program is one that starts the day new hires arrive for their first day on the job and includes all the steps necessary to reach the top position, fire chief. You build this program starting with basic hard skills and then move on to soft skills, followed by advanced knowledge and education. Along the way, add lots of experience.

The hard skills include using a hose or an axe and other tools of the trade. The soft skills include information about such things as fire behavior and technical processes as well as the knowledge that comes from formal post-secondary education.

In developing your succession program, include the KSAs currently required for a firefighter, followed by officer training programs such as Officer 1 through 4. This can then lead to a degree or graduate program.

The steps and top-level requirements will vary by department, based on size and complexity. The requirements for the fire chief in a city with 100 stations and 8,000 employees will be very different than those for a small town with 4 fire houses and 80 firefighters. But the steps and the educational requirements will be the same.

Your next step is to make the training and education available to all, not just a select few. Budget constraints limit how many can take advanced training, but many members will exclude themselves because they have no desire to move into senior management positions.

Develop a process for applying for advanced education and make sure it’s fair and available to all. The goal should be to create a core body of people who have the formal education, knowledge, skills and abilities to fill the fire chief’s position; create a group within your organization that the community can choose your successor from.

The advantages of creating a succession program rest in creating opportunity for internal promotions, having highly trained and educated people working for you and raising the profile of the fire department in the eyes of the municipal administration and the community. Initially, it may be difficult to get members interested in the post-secondary education portion, but once it’s started, they’ll line up at your door with requests for education.

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