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Leading from the Front

IAFC and Saudi Aramco Partner on Fellowship Program

The IAFC's mission is to lead, educate and serve fire-rescue leadership. Saudi Aramco, one of the world's largest companies with one of the largest industrial fire brigades, recognized this when it turned to the IAFC for help in bringing about significant culture change within its fire protection department (FPD).

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has set extremely ambitious goals for Saudi Aramco: by 2020, it intends to be the world’s leading integrated energy and chemicals company, facilitating the sustainable and diversified expansion of the Kingdom's economy and enabling a globally competitive and vibrant energy sector. This is closely intertwined with a wider shift within the kingdom itself.

To meet its audacious vision, Saudi Aramco FPD is going further than hiring consultants to develop a strategic plan. It has decided to lead from the front by giving its junior officers and upcoming firefighters the opportunity to become the change from within.

It's undertaking a grassroots culture change by empowering these young men to live and breathe a mission-driven culture for six months and bring back what they’ve learned.

As an industrial fire brigade, Saudi Aramco FPD faces a significant challenge: how do you grow leaders in a low-call volume environment? How can they build the drive they need to become effective decision-makers?

Thanks to a company-wide commitment to workplace safety and to excellent fire-prevention programs, the Saudi Aramco firefighters get very little operational experience. This means they get few opportunities to hone decision-making under pressure, implement their skills and practice managing the interpersonal aspects of an emergency scene.

Saudi Aramco approached the IAFC to help it design a solution. Together, they developed a vision and action plan: a six-month long program in which its future leaders would be embedded in leading American fire departments to gain operational experience, all while absorbing the qualities and values of mission-driven organizations. The IAFC partnered with San Diego Fire and Rescue Department (SDFD) to launch the first installment of the program in July 2016.

The principle is simple: the Saudi Aramco firefighters are embedded within the department for six months and rotate through the different stations to gain operational experience. They ride as the fifth firefighter on the engine or truck and can do everything their American counterparts do except interior structural firefighting.

The fellowship begins with a week-long orientation to introduce the Saudi Aramco firefighters to the program and prepare them to participate operationally (uniforms, PPE, etc.).

The program’s second week is a mini-academy that acclimatizes the fellows to the units, tools and protocols of their host departments. This is their opportunity to practice and ask questions in a safe environment.

The fellows are then released to the stations across the city to expose them to as many different risk types, personalities and ways of doing things as possible.

The fellowship is punctuated with targeted leader-development training and culminates in a capstone project on a topic of their choosing that addresses current or emerging issues in their department. The leadership component is led by the IAFC’s partner, Mission-Centered Solutions (MCS). This unique partnership was born out of like-minded leaders getting together to address the growing challenges of the fire service.

Mission-driven culture (MDC) is about principles-based leadership in high-risk environments. Senior leaders articulate the intent—the end state the organization wishes to attain. Junior leaders are then empowered to exercise disciplined initiative and use their professional judgment to achieve results.

Formal leader training is designed to meet the unique needs of each level of leadership operating within the MDC system. Courses are targeted at the operator, emerging leader, company officer, battalion chief, senior staff and executive levels. The training is highly experiential and contextualized and is designed to amplify both individual and organizational effects.

The biggest part of mission-driven culture is exactly that: culture. The Saudi Aramco firefighters have state-of-the-art training, equipment and facilities. The IAFC isn't embedding them to learn how to do their jobs; they’re already good firefighters.

They’re being embedded within SDFD to internalize the alignment of mission, vision, values, and leadership that is found in mission-driven culture. They're in San Diego to gain that sense of purpose, of drive, and to have the opportunity to practice what they learn operationally with the structure and support they need to grow and thrive.

This isn't a six-month ride-along. The IAFC works with each Saudi Aramco fellow to develop a capstone project on a gap or issue that they've observed in their home stations. The fellows will become change agents that will, at the grassroots level, impact the company’s and the kingdom’s wider culture.

Furthermore, each fellow is paired with a battalion chief who is more than just a supervisor. They’ll act as advocates and sounding boards and help the fellows become integral and trusted crew members. The fellows are expected to fully participate in all aspects of the fire service family: chili cook-offs, memorial events, community volunteering and sporting events.

Already after just a few months, all parties involved are reaping the benefits of the program. The San Diego firefighters are getting exposed to different ways of doing things and tackling problems, the fellows are gaining crucial operational experiences and the IAFC is realizing its mission on a global stage.

As Chief Fennessy of SDFD says, "Culturally, not only are the Saudi Aramco fellows going to be exposed to the American fire service, but our firefighters are going to be exposed to unique and very diverse cultural attitudes and behaviors. It’s a win-win for all organizations involved."

You can have the best equipment and facilities, but you can't buy great leaders. They’re developed through exposure and experience. The IAFC, MCS, Saudi Aramco FPD and SDFD are all humbled to be part of this great experiment in forging great leaders that impact change.

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