One thing we don’t do well in the Fire Service is career development. We talk about it A LOT but we actually do a poor job with it. We promote individuals through the ranks into senior leadership positions without actually making sure they have the skill set necessary for executive level responsibility. What we do very well is develop fire ground commanders and emergency scene managers but the leadership skills needed to lead a modern fire and emergency services organization in today’s financial, political, human resources and societal realities are lacking.
How do I know this? I know this from sitting on numerous selection processes to select senior leaders and also from my own career experience and talking to other senior leaders.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many really good leadership programs out there to be sure like the NFA Executive Fire Officer, various senior leadership programs at places like the University of Maryland, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, Oklahoma State, and some state programs. The concern is that student capacity is limited when compared to how many senior leadership positions there are across the nation’s Fire Service.
And although many recruitments for senior leader positions required secondary education, those degree requirements rarely stipulate study in a specific field that would be useful in leading a modern emergency services agency.
And besides, most agencies do not have the time, money or inclination to send their potential future leaders to get the training and education needed to move up.
So, what should you do if you have ambition to lead a Fire & Emergency Services organization? Consider creating your own career development plan as a starting point. Very few professional disciplines provide the necessary training and education to move into senior leadership but we have this giant misperception within the Fire Service that our departments are somehow “obligated” to provide that for us. Well the FD is not so obligated and probably doesn’t have the resources to do it if they wanted to with the exception of some tuition assistance or educational leave time.
Instead of waiting, start to develop your plan aimed at your long-term career goals. Fire Chief? Deputy Chief? Assistant Chief? What is your ambition? Prepare your plan along those ambitions. Think about the skills necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of the intended position you want to attain. Fire ground command becomes secondary as you move into those executive levels.
Certifications are great but most are fire technical in nature so don’t rely solely on those. Get a college degree but make it count. Pursue a degree major that is relevant like public administration, business administration, psychology, human sciences, etc. Regardless of your major make sure you take additional courses that will directly support you in a senior leadership role. My suggestions include writing skills, public speaking, accounting & budget planning, urban & community planning, marketing, human relations, strategic planning, data analysis, political relations, news media relations, personnel law and ethics.
Go to conferences and be sure to visit some non-smoke and flames classes like Grant Writing, and Communication Skills. Go with some friends to share expenses and plan to attend different sessions so you get a cross section of information.
Get a mentor – Don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder. If you want to grow in the Fire Service, ask a leader you admire to mentor you. They might be inside or outside of your department and you may want a few over time.
Get a coach – We often are not comfortable with showing off our accomplishments either on a resume or in an interview answer. A coach can give you feedback and help you improve your ability to explain your strengths in the optimal way.
Don’t wait another day. Get started on your next career steps now. Your organization is most likely not going to provide it to you and if you want to be competitive for those senior positions when the time comes, and to be effective when you get promoted, prepare yourself now. Too many of us had to learn those skills after we were put into the leadership roles and on the job training at that level can be disastrous for your career and your organization. You have building to do! And check out our Brave Fire Leader program…it’s a great way to get started. https://www.bravefireleader.com/
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