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Committing to leadership training

Dec. 16, 2008 - It’s time to get serious about fire, rescue and emergency management education and training. That means it’s time to look beyond time served as the main prerequisite for a promotion.

December 16, 2008 
By E. David Hodgins

Now, I realize that work experience is essential for advancement. Textbook knowledge will only take us so far. We need leaders with hands-on experience to assume responsibility for the safety of team members who are operating in dangerous situations.

Individuals should also be given the opportunity to develop leadership competencies beyond those required for command situations. As far as I know, Strathcona County, Alberta Emergency Services, is the only fire department in Canada that has a comprehensive staff development policy and program. Chief Bill Hewitt launched this concept in 1987 and the completed program was implemented in 1991 with the strong support of the county’s executive team and the firefighters’ association. Its success is due to the out-of-the-box thinking and leadership provided by the department, the county administration and council. If there are similar programs elsewhere in Canada, I would be very interested in hearing about them.

When I talk about a comprehensive program, I mean more than a few random courses strung together. I’m talking about a solid career direction, goals and identified deliverables. An effective program involves education and training starting at the recruitment level and progressing to the top with opportunities to experience the responsibilities of different positions along the way. For example, you don’t become a senior officer without having successfully completed an emergency services-based degree program. Yes there are “home-grown” degree programs available in Canada. One of the best programs is the Bachelor of Applied Business: Emergency Services Degree offered by Lakeland College in Vermilion, Alta. I am enrolled in this program and recently had the opportunity to attend the college to complete the introductory course. A new student is required to attend Vermilion for the introductory session; the remainder of the course is available online.

Mark Butler, the associate dean of international and distance learning, is the program lead. Les Karpluk, the fire chief in Prince Albert, Sask., and Lyle Quan, deputy fire chief in Guelph, Ont., are the program instructors and facilitators. Both are amazing at supporting the students while making the learning opportunity the best it can be. (I’m hoping for a few extra marks for this comment – just kidding, chiefs). Seriously, the Lakeland College degree program is exceptional. You can check it out on the college website at .

I had the opportunity to speak to Strathcona County’s finest – fire captains Terry Smith and Dean Melanson during the first course. They talked about the importance of advanced education and how much they are looking forward to the program. Dean and Terry are no strangers to continuing education. Both were hired as firefighters more than 20 years ago and immediately completed about 400 hours of study to become emergency medical technicians, then went on to complete a comprehensive two-year program to become paramedics. Meanwhile, they were meeting Strathcona’s compulsory firefighter training and fire officer leadership development requirements. Now that’s dedication.
Strathcona’s development program works because the county’s senior officials have lived up to the original agreement, ensuring the budget is in place annually.  They were willing to approve a program that has significant long-term obligations because they were presented with justification and the facts up front. Education about staff development is not something you can approach piecemeal. The Strathcona Fire Fighters’ Association agreed to move beyond the “lock step” seniority system to the more formal development program requirements. It believes in the need for education and training to ensure every member has the opportunity to succeed and because of what the county committed to in terms of a structured and achievable succession planning process. 


What does the college website says about the program? “You’ve been in emergency services for a while, and want to move up the ladder. This post-diploma applied degree program is designed just for you. Develop integrated management and leadership skills to achieve your career goals.” Graduate students are eager to talk about the program. Most agree that the opportunity to connect, network and learn from fellow students from various emergency services disciplines across Canada is unparalleled. They have found they can put their experiences to good use. Get started today and in three years you will have the degree and the tools to become a successful leader. 
“An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.” -Anatole France.

David Hodgins in the managing director, Alberta Emergency Management Agency. He is a former assistant deputy minister and fire commissioner for British Columbia. A 30-year veteran of the fire service, he is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s public administration program and a certified emergency and disaster manager. Contact him at

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