A case for investing in fire officer development

With so much responsibility riding on officers' shoulders, fire departments need to invest in their professional growth

This feature is part of our Fire Chief Digital Edition, a quarterly supplement to FireChief.com that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing fire chiefs and fire service leaders everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Winter 2016 issue, click here.

By Demond Simmons

For many of us, our daily morning and evening rituals include checking various social media sites. This is where we get a chance to catch up on the latest happenings in society and to interact with our friends on a virtual platform.

Several weeks ago, a LinkedIn colleague posted the following interaction between a fictitious CEO and her CFO.

CFO: "What happens if we invest in the employee and he or she leaves the organization?"

CEO: "What if we do not invest in the employee and he or she stays?"

Unlike professionals in organizations outside of public safety, those in the fire service rarely leave one fire service organization for another. This is both a benefit and a liability to fire departments.

In organizations that consistently and rigorously engage in providing professional development opportunities to their fire officers, the benefits are unbounded. Conversely, for organizations that neglect a keen focus on the professional growth of their fire officers, the gap between expectations and output are often catastrophic.

Case study

Contrary to what is often stated or assumed about fire officers collectively, we all want direction and opportunities for growth in our current roles.

One organization in Northern California recognized that need for professional development among its company officers. An internal professional development task force of both company and chief officers developed a series of training modules and lesson plans using concepts and themes identified in NFPA 1021: Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications.

Each two-hour module was delivered to more than 90 company officers during on-duty evening sessions. The facilitated discussions allowed company officers to engage in rich discussions on important topics that were not often part of coffee-table discussions in the firehouse. The professional development sessions also served as conduit for information feedback to the department's executive staff.

Recently, this same organization hired an outside consultant to facilitate discussions among chief officers on how to use and implement best practices for managing Type IV and Type V incidents. Shortly after the class, the operations chief assigned a small cadre of chief officers to develop training modules using principles from the Firescope ICS 500 document for focused company officer professional development training.

This case study highlights one of several strategies an organization can use as a foundation to start or enhance relevant professional development for its company officers. With the exception of expenses associated with hiring the external consultant, the organization here does not expect to incur any substantial financial expenditure for its ongoing company officer professional development program.

Planning for the future

As we continue to move forward in the 21st-century fire service, it is imperative that we maintain both a short- and long-term vision. Part of that must include delivering the proper requisite skills so that we can be proficient today and tomorrow.

In a given city, today's fire officer is often tasked with supervising and making decisions on the welfare of over $1 billion in assets —personnel, apparatus, station and buildings in a response district. That tremendous amount of responsibility requires the right set of knowledge, skills and abilities. The public and public administrators therefore demand a high level of competency on decision-makers such as company officers.

Company officers have individual responsibilities as well. And whether a fire department provides professional development training, there is an abundance of opportunities for professional growth externally. Join the International Association of Fire Chiefs and participate in training activities for the company officer. The newly formed Company Officers Section is working zealously to provide relevant training opportunities for its section members.

Work on your degree or obtain a higher one; many institutions offer degree programs and delivery formats tailored to the professional adult.

In addition to reading journals that are fire related, expand your reading collection to include business and other books specific to public administration. As we continue to make more decisions based on data, today's company officer must understand concepts that surround descriptive and inferential statistics.

The bright side of the fire service is that we continue to hire exceptionally talented and smart individuals who will be tomorrow's leaders. Our problem is not who does not have experience in the trades — it will be the inability to learn, unlearn and then relearn.

About the author
Demond Simmons is a captain with the Oakland (Calif.) Fire Department, the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Company Officers Section board member and International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters regional director.

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