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Executive Leadership in the Fire Service: Observations Part 2

Succession Planning, Mentoring and Organization Progression

In an effort to address executive leadership development, the IAFC’s Executive Officers Section 
corresponded with Dr. Denis Onieal, United States Deputy Fire Administrator (ret), to get a better impression of the state of executive leadership and succession planning in the fire service. Is the next generation ready? In this article, we discuss the second part (of a two-part discussion) Succession Planning - Mentoring and Organization Progression: 

Q:  Typically, when talking about officer development, we consider the company officer, and some strides have been made to improve line-officer training. How can we improve executive development?  What should a company officer be thinking about if they want to better prepare for executive  leadership / command staff opportunities?

A:  We can improve executive development in a number of ways, but it’s important to understand that the well-rounded executive needs four things: 

  1. Formal education (it’s about learning and learning how to learn), 
  2. Training (it’s about the perfection of technique), 
  3. Experience (it’s about applying what you know to current issues), 
  4. Continuing education (it’s about staying current in your profession).

The four transformation elements are described in detail at: https://www.usfa.fema.gov/training/prodev/

Another step to executive development is to reward the four elements of professional transformation as a part of your department’s promotion process. Many departments now require minimum degrees for Lieutenant/Captain, Battalion Chief, and Deputy/Assistant Chief. Others award points on competitive examinations. It demonstrates the organization’s value of professional development and reward for the applicant’s initiative.

To become a true professional, the smart, successful leader steps outside of the organization and outside of their comfort zones. As mentioned before, they attend the National Fire Academy, state academies, professional seminars and conferences. They read non-fire periodicals and texts. They recognize that good ideas are universal; that the sun doesn’t rise and set on their local department, and their department is not the center of the universe.

Q:  Since it’s hard to predict what our workforce will look like in 10 – 20 years, what should we be doing now to best prepare for our future employees? What does recruitment need to look like? How do we retain employees? (Diversity, Wellness/Support, Acceptance?)

A:  I hope that by now our NFA alumni understand the value of diversity and the importance of wellness.  If not, they must have slept through some classes. So for this answer, I’m going to give you two things to think about:

  • Because of cost, municipal fire departments are moving from defined benefit pension plans to defined contribution pension plans.  Suddenly, we’re getting away from the ‘golden handcuffs’ of a 20- or 25-year career, culminating in a pension, to a portable pension to which the employer and the employee contribute. With portability, firefighters can move across municipal, county, or state lines and carry their pension with them. There’s no incentive to stay at one department for a career. Lower paying departments are going to become the training grounds for higher paying departments. The higher-paying department gets to cherry-pick the best employees from among an already trained group, saving tremendous training costs. The lower paying department will continue to be a revolving door - recruiting, training, and losing trained firefighters.
  • Every civic, social, veteran, religious and interest-based organization is struggling with a drop in membership. The volunteer fire service is no different. Like it or not, that’s the world we are living in. The fire service's challenge is accepting the truth – if / when an organization is incapable of meeting the community’s demand for service. In my view, this condition will not improve, and governments are going to have to decide what they’re going to do about it. Ultimately, it is up to the elected officials and citizens, not the fire chief, to decide what level of protection and response the community is willing to accept. The fire chief’s job is to inform them of the facts as they exist. Businesses - particularly high-hazard facilities, hospitals and nursing homes - are going to have to weigh in on the issue. We already know what happens to businesses that suffer fire losses; they leave or fail, and the tax base declines.

Q:  As you look back, what would the outgoing Deputy Fire Administrator tell Firefighter Onieal on his first day (or before his first day)?

A: Without a doubt, ‘hold on to your hat – you’re in for a great ride!’

I’d love to be able to give everyone the GPS directions to success in their careers, but it’s never that simple. If you ask anyone with this kind of career, “How did you do it?,” the truthful ones will tell you, “I don’t know.” Neither do I.

Remember when your mom used to worry about the kids you hung out with? Follow mom’s advice, hang out with the smart kids. I got out of the Army and on to the Jersey City Fire Department with a high school diploma. After probie school, I was assigned to the busiest ladder company in the city and several of the firefighters in that station were Vietnam vets going to school on the GI Bill. I quickly realized that going to school on the GI Bill was preferable to working a second job. We swapped schedules with one another so we could attend classes. When I finished up my bachelor’s degree, I still had time left on the GI Bill, so I signed up for grad school and finished my master’s degree. I had a good friend, Jim Cline, who was a Captain with FDNY, and he was pursuing his doctorate in education at New York University. He was one of the really smart kids, so I followed his lead to NYU.

In our promotional system, education didn’t count at all. The New Jersey state civil-service promotional exams were 100-question, multiple-choice tests based on a 56-book bibliography for lieutenant, captain, and battalion chief. Deputy and fire chief were orals. They asked questions about footnotes! While education didn’t count, studying and constantly taking exams in college did – I just got good at it. Even though many of the college courses and tests weren’t fire-related, they reinforced studying and test-taking skills. It worked out for me.

If you aspire to greater responsibilities, then there are a couple of things I recommend:

  • You need a balance of education, training, experience and continuing education to compete with others who have those elements on their resume. It’s not a pass / fail exercise, it’s a competition.
  • Make sure you’re prepared for opportunities before they come. You can’t start preparing when the opportunity shows up.
  •  Get used to being uncomfortable. More responsibility ‘stretches’ you in areas you can’t imagine when you first take on that new role. Think about your perception of how a good lieutenant was before you became a lieutenant. Then, think about your perception of a good lieutenant after you have been in that position for a year, or now that you’re supervising lieutenants. Your perspective changes. As you progress in the organization, that experience intensifies along with increased responsibility and a higher salary.
  • Never want a job so bad that you’re willing to compromise your principles in order to get it.
  • Remember that it is much easier to be 100% ethical than it is to be 99% ethical. If you’re 99% ethical, you have to make a decision every time. If you’re 100% ethical, there’s no decision to be made.

As far as career advice goes, decide what you want. I realized that the person who retires at the highest pay wins, but not everyone wants to be a lieutenant, or the fire chief, or the Deputy Fire Administrator – that’s for sure. We need good people in every part of the fire service. If you’re happy doing what you’re doing, you’re doing a good job and you enjoy it, you’re taking care of your family and contributing to your organization and the profession – good for you. Stay with it. Just keep current on the profession, keep up with the changes and improvements. And best of luck.

Joe Pulvermacher is the Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director for the City of Fitchburg (Wisconsin). He is credentialed as a Chief Fire Officer through the Commission on Professional Credentialing, a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and the Great Lakes Director of the IAFC’s Executive Fire Officer Section. Chief Pulvermacher is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree from the Center of Homeland Defense and Security through the Naval Postgraduate School.  Joe sees the need to continually evaluate training requirements in order to address a constantly changing profession (affected generationally by a regularly changing workforce) and is motivated through positive impacts in work force development, succession planning, and organizational ownership.

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