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How Far Ahead in Your Fire Service Career Are You Planning?

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Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on EDM Digest.

By Dr. Randall HanifenFaculty Member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University 

I had a conversation with a fellow colleague and friend, who asked me about who will be the fire chief in my department in 10 years. He was worried about the fact that the assistant chiefs were planning to retire in eight and 12 years, respectively. His current chief plans retirement in 10 years.

[Related: From Firefighter to Administrator: What It’s Like to Work Upstairs]

My colleague recognized that he has 18 years in the fire service, but he does not currently possess the credentials needed to become an assistant chief. Fortunately, he realized that if you don’t want to work for a leader who makes you unhappy, then you must prepare to take the position yourself.

Fire Service Credentials Require Education and Experience

The fire service has seen much improvement in the credentials needed to be a fire officer, such as a fire chief. However, the stronger demands for proper credentials has made career planning difficult at times and has forced many people in the fire service to readjust their educational paths.

[Related: Fire Service Education: The Past, Present and Future]

From a positive standpoint, the requirements for the various levels of fire officers have been spelled out by the National Fire Academy’s professional development initiative, Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE), for many years. However, it took many fire service organizations a while to implement the suggestions of a master’s degree for the fire chief, a bachelor’s degree for a chief officer, and an associate degree for the company officer.

Is Fire Service Education as Important as Experience?

Recently, many people have argued — possibly because of the national debate about higher education and trade schools — that the education level of a fire service officer is less important that that person’s experience level. This was one of the biggest findings in the International Fire Chiefs Association’s Succession Management Document.

The biggest indicator of success in a career promotion is typically the experience someone has gained in relation to the tasks of the new position. This way of thinking seems logical, as many of the actions in a certain position are repetitive. Prior experience successfully performing those tasks is a great help.

But one missing part from the experience-only philosophy is the fact that the higher a person is promoted, the less repetitive job tasks become. Instead, those job tasks are more thought-based.

Without a solid base of reasoning and exposure to laws, regulations, and best practices, someone is more likely to be less efficient or make critical mistakes. The saying “you cannot solve tomorrow’s problems with today’s thinking” is very accurate.

[Related: Your Fire Science Education Should Prepare You for Evidence-Based Operations]

How Far Ahead Should You Plan for an Executive Position?

My colleague said that he did not envision himself above the level of Battalion Chief. But as he approaches that position currently, he has realized that he needs to work harder to fill positions with the people he wanted to see in those jobs in the future.

When I entered the fire service, I could only envision myself as a Battalion Chief. But I now recognize that I may attempt a fire chief’s position in the future.

I was fortunate, though. Many of my mentors told me that even if I did not want the top position, it was wise to prepare myself for it, as the knowledge would not hurt me even when I held a lower rank.

You never know what will happen in a fire-rescue organization, so you need to be prepared. A friend of mine at a neighboring department went to work at 7 a.m. as a battalion chief one day. By 12 p.m. that same day, he was the acting fire chief. The municipality government had fired both the fire chief and the deputy chief that morning.

One of the biggest hurdles I see to fire service career advancement is personal debate. People wonder if the time spent on college and other executive preparation courses are worth the investment if they do not plan to ever be in the top executive position.

The first point I make to many of these people is that they will likely have much downtime on shift unless they work for a large metropolitan fire department. As a result, they’ll have the advantages of time to study, ask questions and be trained by their mentors.

In addition, most colleges are now giving credit for past experiences and outside training courses. Many schools have awarded basic certifications, which can take six to 12 months off of the time needed to attain a degree.

What Will Be the Future Requirements for Fire Service Executives?

Since the 1980s, there has been a significant increase in executive development in the fire service. In the past five years, executive development programs have undergone revision.

For instance, the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program is being revamped. The Chief Fire Officer designation has been updated in the past few years, and a Fire Officer and other officer designations have been offered to fire services.

With all of these adjustments comes the fact that many organizations hired the bulk of their personnel about 30 years ago. The pool of qualified applicants is shrinking, forcing many fire services to promote their people more rapidly. However, those people may have insufficient experience for the demands of the new job.

But the area of executive development that have been repeatedly tested over time are employee relations, planning and directing, research, and fiscal management. Investing in any program that focuses on these career areas will pay dividends, regardless of the organization or the people in it.

fire serviceAbout the Author: Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the Executive Chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a Taskforce Leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the Vice-Chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a Fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. To contact the author, send an email to For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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