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FRI 2023: The ‘big 3’ keys to promotional preparation

Plan for your next promotion by taking charge of your training, experience and your understanding of the testing process

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“Defining and following a clear path will help ensure that the successful fire officer does not lose focus and invests their time wisely,” writes Hanifen.

By Randall W. Hanifen, Ph.D., CFO, FIFireE

Congrats, you passed your probationary period! Now what? Are you looking ahead to your next promotion but can’t figure out what you should do or what would best help you prepare for the next level in the organization? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

As I have moved through my career, I have had the opportunity to talk with some of the best leaders our service has to offer. One such leader, Dr. Denis Onieal, once observed that there is a defined process and educational track for doctors and lawyers, but not for fire chiefs. That simple insight led me to seek out initiatives, such as the IAFC’s Succession Management resource and the NFPA 1021: Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications Committee, to learn more about how the fire service could emulate other professions with more standardized development tracks for the betterment of our members.

3 keys to promotion preparation

If you are lucky enough to work for a department that has a fully developed succession program, consider yourself fortunate to have an established path. I recommend that you work within your department’s program but be open to outside influences, as nothing guarantees that you will not change departments later in the future. However, the reality is that succession management programs are not available in most departments. So, if you are looking to promote, it’s best to align your efforts with nationally accepted training and education, seek opportunities for engagement and experiences, and ultimately prepare for the critical steps in a promotional process. We’ll review each approach here.

1. Training and education

Training and education are a huge focus in the fire service, possibly to the point of confusion, as most early career firefighters have a family and possibly a second job that must fit into the preparation picture. Don’t get me wrong, anyone who has promoted through the ranks will tell you of the many sacrifices they made to prepare; however, there is not infinite time to attend every educational event. Therefore, the best use of your time is attending classes that yield certification/recognition and are geared toward the position desired. I have seen firefighters attend multiple technical classes but no leadership or management classes, then wonder why they don’t do well on promotional exams.

Supervisory fire officer

To begin the first level of promotion, you must be one of the best trained firefighters. I believe the company officer has the greatest influence on any department, as they spend the greatest amount of time with the largest number of members. As the company officer is a working supervisor, you must have a wide variety of technical knowledge, including hazmat technician, driver/operator, fire inspector and technical rescue specialist. Once these prerequisites are attained, leadership and management training are the next steps.

At the supervisory fire officer (company officer) level, attending a Fire Officer 1 course from your state or local training center is one of the best classes available, as this course provides the breadth and depth of needed knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) for the position.

An equally important class – now required by many state and local training institutions – is the fire instructor course. One of the biggest jobs of the company officer is to train their personnel. Fire instructor class will teach the needed information for adult learning.

Once these two courses are completed, you will learn the ins and outs of incident command. Federal mandates include the NIMS series of 100, 700 and 200, which cover the basics of the ICS system. Blue Card Command training will also teach basic evaluation and command functions of building fires.

Now is also the time to begin your collegiate journey. While not a requirement in NFPA 1021, collegiate recommendations are included in the appendices; higher levels of fire officer classes are weighted greater. Though you can obtain a bachelor’s degree in four years, few firefighters can do so while working full time; this is why it’s important to start your educational journey early.

Finally, learning to “get outside of the cave” will be important. Focus on developing a network beyond your organization. Most departments have similar issues so connecting with members from other departments gives you access to workable solutions. Fire-Rescue International is one of the best networking opportunities. Not only are there many company officers to connect with, but also many highly engaged chiefs, many of whom are more than willing to provide information and offer mentoring.

Chief officer

Moving beyond the company officer requires a mindset shift to a much bigger picture and the management of many small units (companies). Again, certification classes such as Fire Officer 2 will lead to the best development of the KSAs. One of the more notable programs that exists on a national level is the Managing Fire Officer Program. This program is in rewrite but is rumored to contain information related to program and project management, as well as leading from the middle, two of the keys to success at the captain/battalion level.

Related to command and control, you’ll need to go beyond initial command and building fire management. For NIMS curriculum, one requirement is the IS300 course, which focuses on the planning cycles and NIMS forms used at larger or multiple operational period events. The National Fire Academy (NFA) also offers a course in target hazards, which will prepare you for larger events, such as a fire in a hospital or industrial complex.

This promotional level also requires good writing skills, as well as a basic understanding of statistics; after all, it’s hard to manage programs without the ability to analyze data or produce documents needed to improve the program area.

Administrative officer

At the administrative officer level, you are now responsible for large areas of the fire department.

For administrative and leadership development, you should enroll in the Executive Fire Officer Program through the NFA or its state chief’s association equivalent. Many of the state chief’s associations do not have a bachelor’s degree requirement for entry, making them a good option for those who got a late start on their educational journey. Classes on executive planning are also beneficial at this level, especially if the department delegates the strategic planning process below the level of fire chief, which is often the case in larger departments.

From a command-and-control perspective, this level is more concerned with command and collaboration during a multi-agency event. Classes covering human-caused and natural disaster command from the NFA and FEMA’s G-191 as well as command/EOC interface courses will best prepare you for duties at larger events.

Understanding the breadth of administrative-related activities and programs within the fire service – as well as the general education requirements – is an absolute necessity. Unless you plan to sample every area of the organization through appointment to those positions, a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, which should be completed at or before this level, is one of the best ways to gain an understanding of all the areas of responsibility in a modern fire department.

Fire chief

At the executive level, all training and education involves leadership and collaboration. You are now the top of the food chain in the fire department, but you are still only one part of the broader municipal government and local community. By now, you should have completed an executive fire officer series through the NFA or state association and should enroll in a community leadership course. At this level, education will be more important than training, as training tells you what to do, while education builds the skills to critically think. If issues are making it to the executive level, the answer is not obvious and will need research and critical thinking, which are byproducts of the education process, especially at the master’s level.

2. Engagement and experience

At the lower levels, the fire service is a hands-on profession, but at the upper levels, it’s a cerebral profession. While training and education can explain these changes, the dichotomy of fire service officership is forged through engagement and experience.

Supervisory fire officer

At the supervisory fire officer level, leading a crew through a task and preparing the crew through training will be the most critical changes from the firefighter level. The ability to develop a plan for the work, implement the plan and evaluate its success is the mark of a good company officer. Further, those who have the experience to predict the needed work, the ability to assemble a crew and tool cache, and who is formulating a plan B while working on plan A are the company officers I want to show up if I’m the incident commander.

One of the ways supervisory officers can engage is to participate in regionalized teams. Many of these teams have separate organizational structures that can provide the experience of managing a crew. If the department has an acting officer program, this will be the best way for the prospective officer to develop the needed KSA on a practical basis. You can also join networking groups to increase connections. These relationships will pay many dividends throughout your career and starting early will be important.

Chief officer

At the managing fire officer level, involvement in associations, such as IAFC and state fire chiefs’ associations, will become increasingly important, not only from a networking perspective but also for informational purposes. For example, Knowledgenet, an IAFC benefit, provides solutions on a variety of fire service issues sent in a daily email.

Joining committees and work groups in the associations will allow you to work on emerging issues in the fire service and be part of solutions and program development, both of which are important for the managing officer. From a practical standpoint, moving into leadership positions within these special teams allows firefighters to manage different types of configurations and gives candidates a glimpse of the opportunities and challenges that present at an upper-level position.

Administrative officer

As the administrative officer, networking and creating working relationships with crews, colleagues and community leaders is key. Developing a network both in the fire service and in community organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce or Rotary Club, will provide you the needed perspective to see beyond the fire department.

One association that has been unbelievably valuable in my career is the U.S. branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers. This association interacts at the international level, allowing a perspective well beyond the walls of an individual’s community. Additionally, many professions related to fire extinction, such as fire engineering and fire investigator, are part of the association, underscoring that the fire department is important, but not the only piece in the fire safety equation.

As an administrative officer, you should become involved in an incident management team, either though local agreements or through a regional IMT. Practicing fulfilling division/group supervisor or section chief positions at larger events helps ensure that the ICS process will be set up early – a critical step in managing large events.

Fire chief

At the executive level, it’s important to seek out leadership positions in both fire and civic organizations. The best way to remain informed and influential is to become involved in leadership positions external to the fire department; this solidifies your connection to the community and involvement in the issues related to the fire service. An added benefit is the visibility that is desired of elected and appointed officials (see nearly every fire chief’s recruitment flyer).

3. The promotional process

Having the required education and experience will mean nothing if you are unable to perform in the promotional process, which will vary for every rank and position.

At the lower levels, more testing will be related to technical knowledge and determining your ability to manage. Testing at the upper levels will focus on leadership, collaboration and fit within the organization.

While there are many books that discuss the promotional process, I encourage candidates to test whenever possible. At lower levels, there are formal feedback tools that can guide improvement. At the upper levels, you will begin to see what fit is needed for various departments and positions.

Pulling it all together

While there are plenty of examples of officers and chiefs who appear to have – in the words of Chief Rick Lasky – a “Lucky Saturday” promotion, most successful chiefs and officers have invested significant time and energy to attain their positions. Defining and following a clear path will help ensure that the successful fire officer does not lose focus and invests their time wisely.