What’s next?: How to plan for succession so you can have a restful retirement

Succession planning protocol for volunteer departments
April 20, 2017
Written by Denis Pilon
Cultivating fire department members to help them grow into leadership positions is a critical element of a fire chief’s job.
Cultivating fire department members to help them grow into leadership positions is a critical element of a fire chief’s job. Photo: Getty Images
"I would like to retire, but there is no one to take my place.” Have you heard this comment? It is likely you have said something similar or have overheard it in your department. Whether you work in a volunteer or a career department, statements like this are common.

Sometimes these comments are prefaced with: “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” or “My partner would like me to slow down and retire,” or “The chief’s job is such a big time commitment.”

My answers is to these statements are, in fact, questions.
  • What have you done to prepare someone to take your job?
  • Have you identified the leaders in your department and asked them if they are interested?
  • Have any of your members expressed and interest in the job?
■ FIRE CHIEF’S ROLE
I have written two past stories addressing succession planning programs in career fire departments in the March 2015 and May 2016 issues of Fire Fighting in Canada, but the majority of Canadian firefighters are volunteers or part time. So how should fire chiefs of volunteer departments train successors?

This may sound a trite, but training successors in a volunteer department is no different than training career firefighter for the job.

In time, many firefighters will work their way up the ranks, but not all are leadership material. It sounds harsh, but it is true. You want to leave your department in capable hands, so how can you train your members to replace you when the time comes?

First let’s break down your role as a fire chief into four categories: command and control; training; administration; and human resources (yes, even in a volunteer setting).

■ Command and control
Command and control is relatively easy. Your members gain experience with every response and develop command skills from this experience. You will have identified members who take control and can think on their feet. These people have become your captains and/or deputies and you have probably trained them to command incidents, as you cannot always be there. In fact, these members are probably pretty good at this already. In your absence, members are expected to work as a team and bring the incident to a successful conclusion, no differently than if you were present.

■ Training
Training is one of the most exciting parts of the job, and I am sure no one can do it as well as you. I worked in a fire department a number of years ago where the chief used to say that his fire fighters were the best in Saskatchewan… because he trained them. But after he retired, we started some serious training and actually had more than six members attend weekly training. We became a better team because of it. The point is, nobody is perfect and no one knows it all.

Start by appointing a training officer, train some instructors, and let them set up a schedule. Then you can set them loose. Do not stop them, correct them or interfere unless what they are doing is illegal or would cause harm. Sit back and let them learn from their mistakes.

If your members want to learn, all they have to do is ask. The provincial fire commissioner’s office has countless resources, there may be a provincial fire school and neighbouring departments may share resources. Many local career departments are more than willing to help volunteers if asked. You can also check out your provincial and territorial associations, use on-line training resources and subscribe to trade magazines.

Belonging to your provincial or territorial fire chief’s association is a good way to stay connected, but you should not be the only member from your department. Get your deputies involved in these associations and have them attend conferences so they can learn from other chiefs from across the province. Take opportunities to attend training programs such as Beyond Hoses and Helmets and include other members in this training. It is not overly expensive and is great value for the investment.

■ Administration
It is extremely important to train firefighters in fire rescue basics, but we often drop the ball when it comes to administrative training. By telling members to “leave it on our desk,” we are not giving them the opportunity to learn essential skills that will allow them to eventually succeed us. Delegating administrative tasks will make your job much easier and prepare the next generation of leaders.

Every incident requires paperwork, which is often filled in by the members and left for the chief to work his or her magic. Instead of overworking yourself and returning to big pile of paper at the end of every day, start delegating these responsibilities. All of your deputies, captains and lieutenants should be fully capable of completing a fire report and filing it with the provincial fire commissioner.

Someone will have to do the payroll when you are away, so why not assign the job to a deputy? You may even want to assign someone to pay all the bills and submit them to the proper authority for payment. Be sure to put limits on the person responsible, so the department continues to make smart financial decisions even when you are not there. In my department, I don’t look at bills under $1,000 unless there is a problem or something is out of the ordinary.

How about the annual budget? Do your members have input into the budgeting process? Do the senior members participate in the annual budget developments and presentations? If not, consider getting your members involved in these essential tasks.

■ Human resources
Human resources is one of the most important job functions of a fire chief, but also one of the most overlooked. Human-resource programs are critical to recruitment and retention programs, which are often lacking in volunteer fire departments. You should set up a recruiting program that informs new members of the department’s expectations for volunteers. Make it clear that volunteers should be committed. Interview prospective members with two of your existing members. This interview should start the succession planning process by identifying recruits who want to move up the chain of command. Ask candidates what their goals are; if they say they eventually want your job, hire them. You just found one of your successors. Conduct a physical abilities test to ensure candidates understand that being a firefighter can be physically rigorous.

Every department, career or volunteer, has members who seldom attend practice or fire drills. And yes, volunteers can be fired. Failing to address issues and problem volunteers will always cause bigger issues in the long run. So deal with issues as they present themselves.

Whether you are on the brink of retirement or have a few years left, all fire chiefs, volunteer or career, should think about the future of their departments. You have made a considerable impact as a chief. So you must plan in advance for succession, so you can ensure a bright future for your department. The decision to retire will be a lot less stressful knowing you leave it in good hands.


Denis Pilon is the chief of the Swift Current Fire Department in Saskatchewan and is the chair of the CAFC’s resolutions, bylaws and constitution committee. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @DMPilon


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