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Leadership Forum: Guiding recruits up the management ladder

As chief officers retire, a void in fire leadership is expected to materialize within the next few years. However, this is entirely avoidable if we prepare the next generation to take over our positions.

May 24, 2017 
By Bill Boyes

We need to inspire early, and this should not be limited to those in our senior ranks. Career-development planning should be an ongoing and evolving process.

Chief officer positons have changed dramatically over the years and now come with a significant and ever-increasing scope of administrative responsibilities. These positions now require us to operate as well-rounded public administration professionals. These expanded responsibilities make formal education and career-path development all the more important for aspiring chief officers.

But why would someone want to move from a front-line responder role to an administrative management position? The answer is not exactly clear for most people in our profession.

Overcoming the succession planning conundrum is no easy task due to the expectations we place on senior officers, the assigned duties, and the relatively limited financial benefit. From the macro (fire service) level and the micro (fire department) level, the identification and preparation of high-potential leadership candidates is only part of the equation. The overarching challenge that remains is our ability to develop recruiting strategies that emphasize the attractiveness of the chief officer position. Two of the primary roadblocks in the chief officer recruitment challenge (wage compression and work schedule) will not be addressed here but are an interesting topic for another column. Overcoming these impediments will be a massive challenge. However, positive, rewarding, non-monetary aspects of the chief officer position can lead to personal career satisfaction; these factors must be emphasized during recruitment and given due consideration by aspiring chief officers, as they can certainly outweigh the aforementioned impediments.  


Senior officers are often questioned about their rationale for taking the leap into the world of fire department management. Why does someone become a firefighter? Perhaps it’s a desire to serve the community. Or maybe they intend to follow in the footsteps of family member or close friend. From my personal experience, I would argue that these same rationales often apply to chief officers, with one small caveat: we often realize these aspirations in a completely different fashion than we might have done as a responder.

Job satisfaction in the fire service is often aligned with the ability to make a difference. As a first responder, you see the direct impact of your work; the same cannot be said about managment. I had the opportunity to take on a seconded position in the fire administration branch with Brampton Fire and Emergency Services and this opened my eyes to a whole new world within the fire service that many of us do not always fully understand. I was able to work on strategic projects that would help shape the present and future of the department.

Developing a new program or introducing improvements to outdated department policies or programs can instill a certain sense of satisfaction. Moreover, a similar feeling exists when you receive corporate budget approval for a project championed by your front line staff. This is rewarding, contributes to the development of the organization and makes a difference to the overall efficiency or effectiveness of the department.

Additionally, as a chief officer, there is the potential ability to set the long-range strategic direction of your department or even the broader service, which can lead to lasting career fulfillment. The excitement of planning these initiatives is fleeting at times, as many projects may not come to fruition within the span of your career. However, the realization that your input and hard work will contribute to the future of your community is exciting. I will acknowledge that I have completely understated the hard work, inevitable setbacks and potential uncertainty that comes with any large-scale project. Yet, this is why overcoming such a challenge can bring a strong sense of pride and accomplishment to any chief officer.

As chief officers, we have a critical role to entice high-potential candidates into the fire service and inspire them to consider management positions. We need to have honest and open conversations about the role, but we must also convey the realities of the positive and sometimes overlooked aspects of our job. If not, it will be difficult to motivate our talented workforce to move up into our positions when we retire. If we don’t start planning now, I am afraid we will face a succession planning catastrophe.

Bill Boyes is the fire chief for Barrie Fire and Emergency Service in Ontario. Boyes was recently elected to the NFPA Fire Service Section Executive Board and is a member of the IAFC Firefighter Safety Through Advanced Research (FSTAR) working group. He is working on completing his PhD at the University of Toronto. Contact him at

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