If your department is like mine, you have awesome firefighters. These firefighters are driven by their desire to serve their community; they show up every time wanting to do the best job they can. As leaders, how we develop our firefighters will be reflected on in the future of our fire department. As firefighters, we must also create our own personal professional standards. Being prepared for the future starts now, and professional development is the key to organizational success and personal success.
Size is Not a Requirement
I have seen organizations large and small, paid and volunteer, lack professional development program or tools because they are not using the resources they have. Sadly the tradition of believing that a department has to be a certain size to have development tools or programs has been accepted as the norm. Daily we are challenged to do more with the resources we have. Operationally it is easier to accept because we have a proud tradition of getting the job done no matter the cost and we can physically see the results of our actions. We tend not to use the same “never quit” attitude when we approach our development of people. Development of people is hard, because it is difficult to measure success. Additionally, the return on our investment when we develop people takes longer to reap; however, the organizational return is larger and in more diverse areas. Regardless of size, or the makeup of the organization, there should not be any excuses when it comes to the development of our firefighters, drivers, or officers.
While scanning through the social media pages, the overwhelming interest is obviously on fireground operations. There are a number of fire service superstars advocating for aggressive fireground tactics, and while I share their vision of being aggressive, I am also an advocate for being aggressive in the firehouse. Fire service leadership opportunities are more plentiful in the firehouse, being open to receive development from peers, subordinates, and supervisors, which can happen at any moment. Late Lieutenant Andy Fredericks from the Fire Department of New York said it best, “The fire goes as the first line goes.” I think another statement is also true: “How you run your firehouse is how you will run your fire scene.”
Unfortunately, many organizations do not have seasoned officers leading and teaching younger officers many times because of growth, turnover, or unprepared firefighters promoting. We then compound the issue when we promote firefighters to a company officer rank or higher before they are ready and we leave them to figure it out on their own. In many cases, the fire chief and other chief officers know this, but because there is no professional development for new company officers, the performance gap continues to grow.
Identifying the Gap
Identifying gaps is not a difficult process. If you are a firefighter, company officer, or chief officer reading this and you can think of one thing that you wished you had known, been taught, or at least been told about in your first year and nothing has changed, well you have just identified a gap. If you are a chief officer reading this and you find yourself fighting the same battles over and over again and only the people have changed and not the problems, then you have identified a gap. The difficulty does not come from identifying the gap; the difficulty comes from building bridges to overcome those gaps. Professional development is a great bridge over the gaps.
Professional Development Working Model
Throughout my career as a volunteer, driver, and company officer, battalion chief, and now assistant chief, the professional development path is not complicated. On the path of professional development and interacting with professionals, there is a common theme: Professional development does not come overnight. I had a football coach who used to say, “Keep your head in the game; the next play might be yours,” meaning that you should be preparing yourself every day, paying attention to the things around you. Through my experience, education and books that I have read and preparing myself, there is a working model to professional development. The illustration above depicts that working model.
Keep it Simple
Extreme Ownership explains that the simplest battle plans are the most successful because there the easiest to follow. The same goes with leadership: The easiest plans to understand are always the easiest to follow. I have not read a leadership lesson or leadership book that mentioned success as being contributed to “complex, intensive, and hard-to-follow plans or ideas.” Applying that same concept to our professional development of people, keep it simple. Get company officers and firefighters to buy into the idea of professional development first, with solving a common gap. After that they will work as hard for themselves as you have for them moving forward.
Quality (Q1) vs. Quantity (Q2)
This is building on the keep it simple mantra. When creating a development tool or process, ask yourself, “Is it better to have quality work or just work?” I will give you the answer: It’s quality. Creating a professional development process, the focus needs to be the quality of the work and explain the why. Once quality is actualized, our confidence will build and then we can start adding quantity. If we cannot produce quality work, then adding quantity (more work) will not improve the quality and thus not help us to be successful.
Accountability, Development, and Time Management
These three items are lumped together because they represent the fundamental base of any successful firefighter, company officer, and chief officer. Creating any process that is set to develop future leaders has to include these components. Think about the future leaders you are trying to develop. You want them to be accountable for their actions and the actions of those they are responsible for. Our future leaders need to be able to develop themselves and those they are responsible for. The best way to accomplish this is through good time management.
We need to show that we are consistently doing all the identified areas at a proficient level. Consistency is not perfection. We are looking for effort. We are looking for firefighters, drivers, company officers, and chief officers who are seeking opportunities for improvement and that will create opportunities for others to be successful.
What You Can Handle
Everybody learns at different speeds. Some firefighters, drivers, and company officers will pick up on concepts and ideas quicker and will not need much direction. Others will be slow to accept the idea of professional development. The important thing here is to give people opportunities to be successful. Giving someone more than he can handle will only lead to dissatisfaction, confusion, and rattled confidence. The focus here is that everyone is moving in the same direction but not necessarily at the same time.
Call to Action
Creating professional development tools for organizational success does not have to be a monumental task, but you do have to take the first step. Recognize that a simple structure or process that mirrors a job description is a great starting point. Identification of a common gap and working as an organization to solve that gap are recipes for success. If we can be honest with ourselves and identify what is not working and take action, then we have already started professional development. One small step will lead you to blazing a trail for the next person.
Adam Neff is assistant chief of training at the Nixa (MO) Fire Protection District. His fire service career began 25 years ago as a cadet volunteer and he has worked his way up the ranks, serving as a firefighter, driver operator, company officer, and battalion chief. He has a Chief Fire Officer Designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence and a master’s degree in emergency services management.