Most training programs that prepare firefighters for administrative positions have not kept up with the evolution of work as a fire administrator. Current promotional processes are often based on an antiquated assumption that a good firefighter will make a good administrator. Training firefighters to become officers should include more business principles such as balancing a budget for fiscal responsibility.
The role of a firefighter is more dynamic and diverse than at any other time in the history of the fire service. Firefighter education and training academies have responded to these changes by constantly updating their curricula. Competencies that cover a broad base of skills are producing recruits with a diverse set of skills in areas of technology and social skills that did not exist even a decade ago. Education and training programs have not been as responsive, though, when it comes to the changing role of fire service administrators. As firefighters consider their opportunities for advancement within an agency, they may aspire to become officers or chiefs. The assumption that characteristics a good firefighter will automatically apply to the skills required of an administrator is often incorrect and can actually work against itself. A good firefighter may fail miserably in an administrative position if they are not properly trained and versed in the fundamental business principles required to manage a department. Most officer training programs available to those who aspire to be fire administrators focus on management styles. Little if any course work is offered on the subjects of budgeting, accounting principles, and fiscal responsibility. Without providing this training, we are potentially setting the stage for failure for officer candidates at the administrative level.
Both my experience as an officer for the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, fire department and as the founder/president of a firefighting supply company have taught me the value of basic business principles in successfully leading an organization. Knowledge and experience in firefighting contributed to my leadership skills and ability to relate to my colleagues and subordinates. This was also true when I aspired to grow my small, local company into an international supplier of equipment for fire service. These skills alone, however, could not have supported me when it came to managing the operating budget at the fire department or within my business. Being able to decipher a budget, read a balance sheet, and responsibly manage assets were my greatest leadership skills. Balancing these skills with the experience and education I had as a firefighter directly related to successful leadership no matter where I was working.
During my tenure as an officer and chief with Milwaukee fire department, I had numerous opportunities to interact with aspiring leaders within the ranks. The process for promoting firefighters to officers and higher-level positions in the department was more than adequate, but it was similar to many other promotional processes: it ran the risk of promoting someone into a position where they lacked fundamental knowledge and that could lead to being disillusioned or dissatisfied. This is where disaster can strike. A good firefighter proudly accepts a promotion only to find that they are unprepared for the business aspect of operating a fire department. Being unprepared can lead to feeling inadequate. Feeling inadequate can cause the person to leave the position or stay in spite of the frustration tainting their view of the career in their final years with the agency.
Pre-fire planning, incident mitigation, and emergency management planning take up countless training hours for all fire departments. Planning and training focuses on safety and ensuring that firefighters remain on the job. The same should be true with training for anyone who will manage a bureau, division, or department. Key elements for success in the higher-level positions should be identified and used to appropriately prepare prospective candidates. This will ensure that they have the proper tools to function in a new arena, remain on the job, and become successful, effective leaders.
Listed below are fundamental concepts that I believe would prepare all firefighters for administrative positions as well as raise awareness of the business of firefighting.
- Tax dollars invested in the fire department constitute the budget. Tax dollars should not be taken for granted or seen as an endless source of income. Every firefighter or emergency medical worker should have a sense of fiscal responsibility to the budget. Viewing the operation of the department as a for-profit business can curtail waste, unnecessary spending, and an attitude of abundant supply.
- Courses in basic accounting principles to help understand a budget must be part of the curriculum offered through training divisions in the department. Firefighters should also be encouraged to consider advanced degrees in business, accounting, government, or public service administration.
- Agencies should stress the importance of this type of business training for career advancement through modeling and mentoring. Many firefighters are not interested in the business aspect of the career because it is not as glamorous or adventurous as fighting fires. Exposing young firefighters to career options through cross training, mentoring, informational training sessions, or other professional development opportunities allows them to see the inter-relationships between departments. It also helps promote the concept of fiscal responsibility by exposing how each division of the department is seeking a piece of the budget.
Here are ways to instill these fundamental concepts in your department.
- Becoming fiscally responsible through an understanding of the budget may require a cultural shift. The shift can begin during recruit training and/or in the probationary process by orienting new firefighters to the fiscal function of the department. Learning how the department earns and spends money is just as important as learning about equipment, rigs, schedules, and family dynamics of the firehouse. This training can be formally infused into recruit schools or field training, but it can also be done informally through mentoring. Aligning a new recruit with a trusted veteran firefighter who has proven knowledge of fiscal responsibility can help ensure that there is a cultural change in the department. The culture change can combat the mindset that a balanced budget is not necessary because tax dollars are endless.
- Fiscal responsibility and budgeting are not inherent skills. Larger departments that offer recruit academies for their prospective employees should add business courses that teach personal finance, spreadsheet operation, or basic accounting. This creates balance in the curriculum and helps introduce the firefighter to the need for these skills in career advancement. At higher education academies, course work to earn a firefighting or medic degree should encourage elective courses in accounting, spreadsheet operation, or finance. If departments provide educational reimbursement for firefighters to receive advanced degrees, leadership should stress the importance of any business degree rather than focusing simply on public administration.
- Understanding the business of firefighting requires respect for all divisions within the department. When new hires join the agency, they should be introduced to all divisions and held accountable to an understanding of how all the divisions interact. This not only supports their understanding of the capital budget of their employer, but it provides them with public relations skills. It is common knowledge that when a firefighter or medic is seen in public, he or she represents the department. That is why a uniform, professional appearance is demanded of the firefighter, the equipment, and the action they take on scene. The public also expects the firefighter to be fully knowledgeable about the department. A citizen may ask questions or make a request of a firefighter, and that person representing the department should have the knowledge to address the question or request. They may not be able to answer or respond due to the limitations of their job description, but they should be able to use their working knowledge of the department to refer the citizen to get the answer or help they need. All members of the department should respect each person’s role in the department. Administration should stress early on in a firefighter’s career that administrative tasks are not as glamorous or heroic as those performed on the streets. However, without effective, fiscally responsible administrators in these positions, the heroic work on the street would not be possible.
In my role as a fire administrator and president of a large company, I continually encouraged others to strive for success and am discouraged when I see someone set up for failure. Most often this happens when a person appears qualified through transferrable skills but lacks the opportunity to learn the new skills fundamental in a higher-level position. Creating the opportunity to learn the skills requires a paradigm shift in thinking through the entire department but particularly in the areas of recruitment, training, and leadership development.
Implementing the aforementioned recommendations (any part of them or customized adaptations of them) can start the paradigm shift to ensure that the most qualified candidates are in leadership positions. Begin your administrative disaster management training at the lowest possible level and start today.
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