Learning to Lead: Why departments must take a proactive approach to fire officer development

By Sean W. Stumbaugh, Battalion Chief (Retired)

There is one simple truth about the passing of time: It’s relentless. Like swift-moving water, time rushes past you and you can do nothing to slow it down. For you and your department this truth has an impact. For you, time keeps marching you toward your retirement date. For your department, time is pushing a valuable commodity—experience—right out the door. And without a plan for how to capture and/or replace that experience, you end up with an experience vacuum that can be detrimental to your department’s health.

canstockphoto1890243 (1)The solution is not to somehow slow down time; the solution is preparation. Passing on experience and developing new leaders is the antidote for the time-created experience gap. Experience is gained by spending time in different organizational positions and learning from what chaos throws at you. The grizzled old captain sitting at the station’s big oak table has experience written on his face. But look around the table. Which one of the fresh faces of the men and women sitting there are ready to lead? If you can’t answer the question, then you have some work to do.

The Academy Approach
Fire officers aren’t born; they’re made (at least most of the time). To create new fire officers you must invest in the personnel you hire. Typically, organizations have academies for their entry-level firefighters where we teach our people the basics of our trade. Personnel become journeymen through continual training and their on-the-job experiences.

Progression through the ranks can take many forms. Sometimes this process happens purely by seniority. The person who has been on the job the longest becomes the next chauffer (or engineer) when a spot opens. Many organizations hold rigorous testing processes (full of feverish hydraulic calculations) for the privilege to drive the engine and/or promote into that seat. But how many departments have proactive training programs to train these folks once they’re in the position?

Engineering is one thing, but how many organizations really invest the necessary time to create new fire officers? If your department requires members to complete a set of classes to become eligible to promote to the officer level, it’s a start—but it’s not enough. You’re missing the opportunity to create and shape future leaders that fit the unique needs of your department. Too many departments contract out this work to other people (by default) and then wonder why they have no consistency among their officers.

The solution: Create a system of training and expectations, governed by your organization’s people, philosophy and goals, and train your people from the inside. We wouldn’t dare put a firefighter into a house fire without first requiring him to complete the basic academy. So why not create a fire officer academy that will give your people the necessary skills to become journeymen fire officers?

Classroom Curriculum
If you proceed to conduct a promotional exam and you don’t have enough qualified candidates, it’s basically too late; your options are to lower standards or look outside the organization for qualified help. Either practice creates hard feelings in the ranks and makes leading the organization that much more difficult. The answer lies in a continuous preparation process that generates a pipeline of qualified candidates.

To prepare your people you must have a program to aid in their success. Establishing a list of minimum requirements (classes) is the first step. Most states have some form of minimum training requirements for certification in the fire service. These systems are often governed by a state fire marshal or other entity. There are also national institutions that have standards on accreditation and certification (IFSAC, Pro Board, etc.) that members can strive to obtain. All of these career tracks do good work in educating and preparing members for their future positions; however, they are just a beginning.

Establishing an internal training program is the next step. Seek input from all levels in the organization through a needs assessment. If the program does not meet the needs of the target audience it will not be successful. Utilize your existing officers (the ones who “get it”) and write a curriculum that is specific to your operations and culture. This is not merely how to put out fires in your town but how to lead your personnel; how to support and implement organizational goals and objectives; how to use supervision and discipline to enforce policy. Fire officers are personnel managers as much as they are fireground operators. Gordon Graham says the main job of any supervisor is to enforce policy. But how many fire officers would describe that as their first and foremost responsibility?

A major component of this “classroom curriculum” is establishing organizational goals and objectives. If you don’t know where you are going you won’t know how to get there. Your future officers need to understand your vision for the department before they can become a force to help fulfill that vision.

Speak to your people often and reinforce your commitment to your vision. The absence of information creates a vacuum and your people will fill the void with what they believe is happening. Counter this by keeping them informed and helping them see how they fit into the vision, and what they will be expected to accomplish. Of course, as chief you can’t do this alone. Your senior staff, middle management and existing officers must also understand the vision and reinforce it in the field. Assign willing officers to mentoring positions and give them sufficient time and information to train future leaders. This process takes a commitment of energy, effort and time to be successful.

Hands-On Leadership
No matter how good your classroom curriculum, it will not be enough without hands-on practice. True leadership experience is gained through actual hours in the trenches, or at a minimum, through hands-on drill and simulation. Like throwing an SCBA, pulling a cross lay, or catching a plug, leading in the fire house or on the fireground takes practice. When I was a young firefighter I worked by myself on an engine. I learned many things the hard way, doing it by myself for the first time and learning from mistakes as well as success. With a proactive succession plan your people will not have to learn this way. They can gain valuable experience from the officers who have already lived out these lessons.

The departments I have witnessed who are successful at leadership development have all had a plan and they practice it. The act of playing out the role of officer, through simulation, discussion and drill, creates memory “slides” within the brain of your future officers that they will refer to in future situations. You want to pass on your experience, and the experiences of your officers, by relaying stories and simulating events that have occurred. Encourage senior members to share lessons learned in kitchen-table discussions. Use post-incident analyses to review the incident command steps taken at a call so that future officers understand why you did things a certain way and the consequences of command decisions. Consider a program that gives firefighters practice as “acting” company officers while under the careful supervision of an experienced officer. Practice is an essential step in the process of passing on experience before it walks out the door.

Pass the Baton
Membership in our beloved fire service is a privilege, and with privilege comes responsibility. It is imperative that we, as leaders, do what we can to pass on our knowledge and experience to those who follow us. These young people may not accept everything we think and believe, but they will appreciate our experiences, particularly those experiences where we learned great lessons about what to do and what not to do. If you are approaching the twilight of your career and have not sufficiently passed on what you know, consider the options presented here. You will enjoy your retirement more if you are satisfied you did what you could to strengthen your department—and the fire service—before you left.

SEAN STUMBAUGH is a management services representative for Lexipol. He retired in 2015 after 32 years in the American fire service, serving as battalion chief for the Cosumnes Fire Department in Elk Grove, Calif., as well as the El Dorado Hills (Calif.) Fire Department and the Freedom (Calif.) Fire District. Sean has a master’s degree in Leadership and Disaster Preparedness from Grand Canyon University, a bachelor’s degree in Fire Science from Columbia Southern University, and an associate degree from Cabrillo College in Fire Protection Technology. In addition to his formal education, he is a Certified Fire Officer, Chief Officer, and Instructor III in the California State Fire Training certification program. Sean has taught numerous state fire training courses and has been an adjunct professor with Cosumnes River College in Sacramento.

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