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Building Experience After Education

“That was a great class. Now what do I do with it?”

That thought has passed through the minds of many fire officers. You go to a class, a seminar, complete a certification program, all in preparation for promotion, but then how do you apply that information to make it practical, valuable? Waiting for the promotion or for the very situations covered in the program are always an option, but that’s reactive and passive, not proactive.

Just how do you create experiences?

Start by identifying the topics for possible experiences. A good source of needed experiences is the technical competencies listed in the various credentialing application of the Center for Public Safety Excellence.  Each of the seven possible credentials lists between 7 and 20 technical competencies.

Let’s look at number 10 from the CFO designation: Health & Risk Management. Within the learning content are several topics (some technical competencies may have more than a dozen topics).

Having identified H&RM as a possible experience, you can then look for some very specific opportunities. Here are three examples.

OSHA Regulations

There are dozens of OSHA regulations that apply to many fire departments. Even if you’re not an OSHA-plan state, some office or department of your state government may use these regulations by reference. In either case, the regulations are important.

Just how does your fire department stack up? If you’re a member or leader of a special team such as hazmat or technical rescue, do you know which regulations apply and whether you meet them?

Don’t make assumptions. Here’s an opportunity to put that new education or training to use.

Assessment of Risk

What are the risks faced by your fire department? Sure, you can make up a list by brainstorming, but use your NFIRS data and job task analysis to determine the risk.

There’s also risk in our daily station life: sanitation within the firehouse, slip and fall and ergonomics, and the use of hand tool, step ladders and extension cords, to name a few.

Use your planning skills to analyze and evaluate operations. Start small. Get a base hit; don’t swing for a grand slam. Use guides such as those found in NFPA 1500 or provided by your insurance company/risk pool.

Local, State and Federal Legislation and Regulation

Do you know how to look up state and federal laws? Can you find them online?

My state, Illinois, has all its statutes, bills from both houses of the legislature and Public Acts easily accessible. The Government Printing Office offers easy search of the Federal Register as well as the Code of Federal Regulation where all OSHA regulations are located.

Take the time to find these now, not when you need them. Glance through them and get acquainted with the layout, format and text. Keep this knowledge, skill and ability in your hip pocket, and one day you’ll look like a star when a peer or superior is searching for the details and you can access them quickly and authoritatively.

Other Sources of Experiences

These examples are not all-inclusive. You may think of other experiences.

Your organization may constrain your participation for varying reasons. If that’s the case, be creative if you want the experiences. Ask yourself, “Do I need direct experiences in my own fire department?”

Perhaps you can gain experiences with a volunteer organization, not just a volunteer fire department. Perhaps you can obtain a part-time position with another department in an ancillary role, such as an executive assistant or planner or with their community risk reduction program?

On a side note: In my research for the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, I noted that every chief officer I interviewed had made the transition from working shift to a “day/40-hour” position. While some didn’t make the switch voluntarily (it came with the promotion), everyone stated it was the key to their professional success.

Whether their rank was lieutenant, captain or some form of chief, the fact that they were in the main office every day with the fire chief and the second-in-command chief taught them how things worked.

At some point while in that position, all were given assignments generally reserved for chief officers. One now-fire chief stated that on a regular basis the fire chief and deputy chief would detail him to a meeting they could not attend themselves. It was in these situations that lessons were learned, networking developed and he became prepared to use previous knowledge that got him the next promotion.

Unlike tactical training, most professional development for a future role isn’t easily applied. For example, if I go to a class and learn a new way to use a saw, I can come right back to the firehouse and share that with others. If I learn how to conduct difficult conversations or prepare complex specifications, then I usually don’t have an immediate and direct opportunity to apply knowledge and skill to develop ability.

Experiences can be big and small. Varied experiences are the best. Multiple experiences build on each other. Don’t wait to be good. In the end, gain experience one way or another.

Remember: No athlete just shows up one day for the championship game. Long hours and hard work were invested. Be a champion.

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