Fire Fighting in Canada

Drawbacks and advantages to seniority-based promotional systems

Avoiding apathy and encouraging leadership in Canadian fire departments

April 26, 2024 
By Keith Fredin


Many Canadian fire departments function with seniority-based promotional systems. While there are many advantages to these systems, including fairness and the promotion of more experienced firefighters to higher ranks, there are many drawbacks. Are those experienced firefighters actually more qualified to be in a position of leadership? Does experience in fire fighting make them more prepared to lead others? Deal with crew or firehall interpersonal conflict? Engage with employee questions or needs surrounding personal growth? Health and wellness resources? Training and accountability? Leaders can be trained, but what motivates them to want to learn? If all one needs to do is ride the escalator to the top and promotion is all but guaranteed, there is little impetus to learn about leadership. This lack of leadership learning culture can hinder department performance both in the halls and on calls, interfere with organizational goals and missions, impair succession planning and slow efforts to increase fire department diversity (Catano et al., 2013; Noe et al., 2012; Shelton, 2010).

So, with all that, what can a department do? With collective bargaining agreements, unions have been reluctant to move away from seniority-based promotional systems, citing concerns for fairness (Shelton, 2010). There is certainly validity in those claims, where the measures used for promotion in merit-based systems are often written tests and/or interviews. The former has difficulties in assessing leadership in action and the latter is prone to bias. Assuming collective agreements are unlikely to change, there are a few strategies that administrative or leadership teams can use to improve leadership learning culture and reduce apathy. This article aims to give a brief overview and basic guide to thinking more strategically and planning ahead for success through performance management, employee appraisals and succession and strategic planning.

Increasing employee.engagement through performance management..
How can a department fight apathetic employees? Performance management is the concept of guiding employees to make decisions that align with organizational goals. While it can imply the action of “performance managing” employees who are not doing their jobs, in this context the more broad decision-making (non-punitive) themes will be discussed. Gruman and Saks (2011) recommend creating a holistic system of performance management and employee annual (or more often) appraisals that centre around station officers and above to engage with firefighters on their goals and needs. They suggest including:

  • Goal-setting: Ask, how can personal goals relate or tie into the department’s goals? When these two are aligned, the chances of them being fully supported are much higher as they become mutually beneficial to employer and employee.
  • Psychological contracts: Talk about staff’s general wellbeing and what they expect for their goals. Remember, though, if you commit to something as a leader, you have to follow through or your legitimacy could be called into question.
  • Training wants and needs: Firefighters are passionate. Let them tell you what they want and need and get to know department or municipal resources available to make it happen.
  • Leadership’s role: Keep promoting what is done best in fire departments, which is learning on the job. Let others shadow and empower those you lead to learn and talk about your job and how you do it – it will probably be their job one day. 

Succession planning.
Succession planning is the process of preparing current employees for future roles. It’s important because: 

  • It allows for business continuity in stressful or trying times, such as budget cuts.
  • It helps develop leadership skills in existing staff.
  • It provides internal candidates for future leadership positions, which provides an applicant pool of individuals with institutional knowledge, saving time and money (Belcourt & McBey, 2010).

So how can leaders encourage succession planning? It’s done by simply providing leadership learning opportunities. There are leadership portions to many NFPA programs, including 1021, Fire Officer levels 1-4. This is an excellent option when your department is willing to pay for a pre-packaged plan. If something more internal is wanted or needed, the department could develop a plan to provide education funding from external universities, colleges, or general business leadership conferences. Other options include looking at internal municipal options: are there programs within your area for other municipal employees? Ultimately, no matter which path is chosen, there is a cost; be it in staffing loss or through financially backing programs. However, as Belcourt and McBey (2010) state, much evidence supports the long-range return on investment for investing in your own staff. Moreover, if you want strong leaders when you cannot choose who might be promoted due to seniority, you might just have to pay more to train them all to a base level. While creating a base level of leadership, the department can focus efforts on designing a system to help engage with those more interested in personal growth to have access through time, money, or both.

Strategic planning.
This is the part where everything starts to come together. A strategic plan needs to be developed to guide department decisions. Strategic plans are important as they provide broad direction and can unify staff to one common goal. However, scholars suggest these plans must be designed in a way that engages as many staff as possible to promote buy-in for the plan (Bryson et al., 2018; Elbanna et al., 2016; More et al., 2012). Not only does the strategic planning process act as a feedback loop back to engagement and performance management, it drives further employee engagement. There is a lot of discourse on how to make a strategic plan, but the basics start with a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis, where each of these categories can help to identify areas specific to an individual fire department’s situation. Another example is the Balanced Score Card (BSC) (Kaplan & Norton, 1992). It suggests looking as holistically as possible at an organization through different lenses:

  • The customer perspective: How are we seen in the community?
  • The internal perspective: How are we seen by our own staff?
  • The innovation and learning perspective: How can we improve?
  • And the financial perspective: How are we seen by our municipality? Our stakeholders?

Using these basic guides as a simple guide and researching more specific plans and examples, department leaders can tie together performance management, succession and strategic plans to improve culture. This article speaks to improving leadership, but the same process can be used for a variety of culture changes. From improving equity, diversity and inclusion to enhancing general accountability. Leaders need to lead by example, be transparent, communicate openly with employees and work collaboratively with as many stakeholders as possible to drive positive changes in systems that can be prone to apathy.


  • Belcourt, M., & McBey, K. J. (2010). Ascertaining HR supply. In Belcourt, M. (Ed.), Strategic human resources planning (4th ed., pp. 189–223). Nelson Education.
  • Bryson, J. M., Edwards, L. H., & Van Slyke, D. M. (2018). Getting strategic about strategic planning research. Public Management Review, 20(3), 317–339.
  • Catano, V. M., Hackett, R. D. & Wiesner, W. H. (2013). Recruitment: The first step in the selection process. In Belcourt, M. (Ed.), Recruitment and selection in Canada (5th ed., pp. 207-262). Nelson Education.
  • Elbanna, S., Andrews, R., & Pollanen, R. (2016). Strategic Planning and Implementation Success in Public Service Organizations: Evidence from Canada. Public Management Review, 18(7), 1017–1042.
  • Gruman, J. A., & Saks, A. M. (2011). Performance management and employee engagement. Human Resource Management Review, 21(2), 123–136.
  • Kaplan, R. S. & Norton, D. P. (1992, January-February). The Balanced Scorecard—Measures that Drive Performance. Harvard Business Review.
  • More, H. W., Vito, G. F. & Walsh, W. F. (2012). Organizational Behaviour and Management in Law Enforcement (3rd ed.). Prentice Hall.
  • Noe, R., Hollenbeck, J. R., Gerhart, B., Wright, P., & Eligh, L. E. (2012). Strategic human resource management: Gaining a competitive advantage. McGraw-Hill Ryerson
  • Shelton, D. S. (2010, March). Seniority Based Promotional System of the Baton Rouge Fire Department. National Fire Academy.

Keith Fredin is an Assistant Deputy Chief in Edmonton. He comes from an operations background as a firefighter and has been a member of Edmonton’s fire department since 2010.

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