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Leadership Forum: Exchange programs – developing leaders

Exchange programs that provide opportunities for fire fighters to switch jobs – and even houses – while working for a department in another country have become popular. Are these programs meaningful? The program promotional materials list several reasons why one should support a fire fighter exchange.

December 17, 2007
By E. David Hodgins

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edavidhodgins_3908Exchange programs that provide opportunities for fire fighters to switch jobs – and even houses – while working for a department in another country have become popular. Are these programs meaningful? The program promotional materials list several reasons why one should support a fire fighter exchange. At first glance there appears to be a lot to gain by allowing individuals to experience the ins and outs of a department located in another part of the world. And, given our winters, who would pass up the opportunity to enjoy a year in sun-drenched Australia?

The challenge for fire service leaders is to ensure these opportunities are truly value-added. The fundamental question is will the fire fighters actually make use of what they learned when they return to their home department? And has a process been implemented to allow input and change from the returning fire fighter? Like it or not, the reality is that new and different ways of doing things are not normally initiated by those working on the “floor.” Our culture dictates that management initiates any consequential changes. But that, folks, is a topic for another day. The point is, it makes more sense to encourage those in management leadership or those being groomed for leadership to enrol in exchange programs. Currently, few if any senior staff are involved in exchange programs. Taking one’s job, life and perhaps family on the road seems to appeal more to younger members of the fire service.

When you think about it, an exchange program is one of the best forms of professional development. Both the individual and the fire service can benefit significantly. The individual has the opportunity to mature as a leader and manager with an added benefit of being able to re-energize. The payback of rehabilitation is considerable. The old adage – a change is as good as a rest – fits. An enhanced energy level results in a more positive attitude and increased passion for the job. One regains the desire and drive to actually make a difference. Then there are the new ideas and valuable experiences one gains. And this is all offered at an affordable price, especially when you consider the costs of the more traditional academic approach. Many have found theoretical knowledge difficult to translate into action. An exchange program goes beyond the abstract because it provides hands-on experience, which is one of the most effective training tools.

Private sector, profit-driven organizations have some legitimate challenges about supporting exchange programs. These profit-centred organizations are concerned about releasing key team members and proven high-performers, even for a short period of time. Still because they recognize the tangible benefits, they do actively seek out opportunities to participate. The structure of the fire service and how we do business is a good fit for participation in an exchange program because, like private sector organizations, it is recognized that the bottom line can not be ignored.

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If you are contemplating support for an exchange program, ensure the ground rules and expectations are up front. Participants need to understand it is not about vacationing at a desirable destination at bargain basement prices. The goal and objectives need to be clearly understood by the prospective candidates. To create a win-win situation, identify explicit outcomes in advance. The goals could include demonstrating the ability to effectively write SOGs, enhancing labour management relations or defining best practices based on what one has learned at the other department.

Exchange programs are not about transferring a problem in the hope it will go away. Nor should exchange opportunities be restricted to career positions. With a little ingenuity, leaders serving as volunteer fire fighters could be allowed to participate. As the saying goes, “If you continue to do what you have always done, you will continue to get what you always got.” If we want to encourage people to develop their potential, then we should provide them with the opportunities to learn new skills. This way, we create a win-win situation for both the individual and the fire services.

And remember, it’s all about “respect and passion.”

E. David Hodgins is the Fire Commissioner for the province of British Columbia. A 27-year veteran of the fire service, Hodgins is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s public administration program and a certified emergency and disaster manager and fire services instructor. He has held senior fire officer positions in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario, most recently as Fire Chief of London, Ont.


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