Leadership Forum: November 2015
By Bill Boyes
Defining the steps necessary to get a chief’s position is more of an art than an exact science and depends greatly on your background, fire-service tenure and ultimate career goals.
There are various chief-officer portfolios to consider (administrative-focused, operations-focused or staff division-focused) along with the numerous career paths that can be taken. This column is but one piece of advice for those who want to climb the fire-service career ladder.
While there have been significant changes in the area of career development within the Canadian fire service since I began my journey about 10 years ago, a part of the framework that I used is still relevant, especially given the transition to the NFPA standards in Ontario and across Canada. The United States Fire Administration’s national professional development model (NPDM) is an excellent tool that can be tailored to fit your career goals, tenure and background. The NPDM couples incremental building of formal education with fire service-specific training/education using NFPA 1021: Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications. It is important to recognize that NFPA 1021 is not a substitute for formal education, rather it should be thought of as a supplement. Credentials held by many of our United States counterparts are evidence of how this model has helped professionalize the fire service.
Many disagree on the type of formal education into which aspiring chief officers should invest their finite time and resources. There is an overwhelming array of post-secondary programs available and firefighters have only so much time to dedicate toward their career ambitions.
Understand that there is no prescribed and definitive career path, but a degree in the social sciences is certainly a safe choice. Public administration, business, economics or political science are safe choices that enable you to employ your previous fire-service experience and knowledge in an academic context. This knowledge can then be transferred back into your fire-service career.
The lack of a defined career path to a chief officer’s position is by no means detrimental to the fire service. My approach to post-secondary education was to diversify as much as possible in order to garner a range of knowledge and skills across disciplines. I completed a bachelor of commerce undergraduate degree and then a master’s degree in public policy and administration. Now I am working on a PhD in human resources management.
While there are advantages and disadvantages to every approach, a non-prescriptive career path exposes aspiring chief officers to a range of disciplines and it allows those currently in the fire service to take advantage of their past educational experiences. It is easy to see how chief officers can benefit from exposure to political science, business, public administration, leadership, psychology, human-resources management, statistics, research methods, and so on. I could list almost all of the 60 university courses I have taken and explain how certain aspects, at some time or another, are useful to a chief officer.
Too often I hear firefighters argue that what they learn in academic settings is not applicable to the real world and in particular, the fire service. In my opinion, that is a very naive and myopic way of thinking. Yes, some topics are not easily transferred to a fire-service setting; however, the critical thinking employed to understand academic topics and the ability to devise an answer or a report are extremely valuable skills when moving into primarily administrative roles.
I found the best way to add value to my post-secondary courses was to tailor my research papers and assignments (when possible) to problems or concerns in the fire service. My master’s and undergraduate theses were tremendous learning opportunities – I completed large-scale research projects (100-page, or more, reports) that examined topics such as chief officer-leadership development and fire-based EMS. Yearly term papers presented additional opportunities to look at other important and relevant fire-service issues. Within my PhD program, I try to balance the academic requirements of PhD coursework and eventually the dissertation with fire-service research in areas that may benefit our industry in some way. This strategy allows me to build an academic skill set, deepen my understanding of relevant fire-service issues and learn transferable skills that I can apply to my current and future positions.
In coming columns, I will discuss the challenges and unexpected situations that I have faced as a newly promoted chief officer, and alternative career-development opportunities outside of formal post-secondary education.
Bill Boyes is the deputy chief for Barrie Fire and Emergency Services in Ontario. Contact him at Bill.Boyes@barrie.ca