By Laura King
Sept. 8, 2015, Toronto – Something to consider on the day after Labour Day and the week that school starts: How is it that in a province in which everyone and his brother or sister wants to be a firefighter and municipalities are hiring the best of the best, retired chiefs who have been around for 30-plus years are filling job vacancies while also collecting their pensions?
Has no one heard of succession planning? Or does no one else want to work that hard what with the predominance of 24-hour shifts that make white-shirt desk jobs about as appealing as fighting a grass fire in 30-degree heat.
Last week, an eastern-Ontario municipality announced that it had hired a chief effective Sept. 1 who has more than 35 years experience. That chief retired from his previous fire-chief job the week before with, I’m sure, a delightful Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) pension. Good for him!
A former deputy chief with Canada’s largest fire department did the same thing earlier this summer; was hired by a small municipality as full-time chief of its composite department, then retired from Toronto Fire Services with a full pension.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this; municipalities want experienced people with a fire-service track record and a litany of leadership credentials. But, my goodness, are there really just a few good wo/men out there? Where are the deputy chiefs? Why are departments hiring from outside rather than from within?
Across Ontario, municipalities with labour issues are struggling to find anyone to fill top jobs. Headhunters for small towns are begging retired or ex-fire chiefs to at least come in for interviews (perhaps in hopes of learning something). Indeed, some of my best fire-chief friends across the country have been approached repeatedly to work in municipalities in which the politics are as nasty as bout of poison ivy.
Up in Simcoe County, north of Toronto, the chief in of one municipality was tapped to run a neighboring department after its chief left – one chief, two departments. Interesting concept.
In Kearney, Ont., according to the local newspaper, the chief was let go – it’s not clear why, although I suspect everyone in Kearney, population 800, knows – but nobody told the firefighters. Seriously. The mayor told the newspaper he thought the chief’s wife would tell the firefighters; she happens to be a town councillor and the department’s training officer. Would you want to be the chief in Kearney?
Look at the job postings for fire chiefs nowadays; human resources departments want degrees in public administration, business or management, leadership training, ongoing executive education, fire-ground experience, the soft skills necessary to work with people.
So this week, as colleges and universities suck money out of our bank accounts so our children can earn diplomas and degrees, think about where you’ve been, how you got there, and what has changed.
I never went back to school; my degree in journalism and political science/public administration served me well. But after more than 25 years as a reporter and editor, I’m not eligible to teach journalism because I don’t have a masters. Ridiculous? Maybe. Reality? Absolutely.
So, is the problem too few good men or women? Do today’s fire chiefs and the municipalities in which they work lack succession-planning skills or will? Are human-resources departments loathe to promote younger officers who might challenge the status quo? Or do those firefighters have no interest in the drudgery of day jobs that require budget preparation, putting up with politics, managing peers, and compressed salaries?
I don’t have answers – just some things to think about the day after Labour Day and the week that school’s back.