Between 9-1-1 calls, community education, annual training, equipment inspections, and everything else that’s part of day-to-day life at a firehouse, firefighters are often too pressed for time to focus on those projects that may be deemed non-essential activities.
Unfortunately, it’s for this reason that professional development is often pushed to the wayside or added to the very bottom of to-do lists. While fire leaders will readily acknowledge its importance, finding time to set aside specifically for professional growth isn’t always a top priority.
The necessity for professional development programs and the essential role they play for the fire service were the focus of the webinar, “Making a Dynamic Professional Development Program for Fire Leaders,” presented by Acadis and hosted by Chief Mike Richardson, Division Chief of Training at St. Matthews Fire Department in Kentucky, and Chief Anthony Kastros, retired Battalion Chief formerly of Sacramento Metro Fire Department in California.
During their presentation, Chief Richardson and Chief Kastros shared tips and advice for fire leaders interested in starting a professional development program at their departments, as well as sharing key points from the ISFSI Professional Development Matrix.
Before you can start down the path of creating a professional development program at your fire department, it’s important to reflect on your own approach to member growth.
At every step of their journey, your team will be looking to you for guidance and feedback, and will mirror your attitude. If you provide a supportive environment that engages them and rewards their hard work, you will find far more success than if they feel the program is half-hearted or only for show.
“It’s amazing how many leaders aren’t mentors, and that’s a critical part of professional development,” Chief Kastros said during the presentation.
Chief Kastros also acknowledged that the loss of fire leaders to things like early retirement and injury has resulted in the loss of irreplaceable knowledge.
“We’re losing a lot of people, and the vacuum that’s left behind is sucking people into leadership positions that frankly, they aren’t ready for,” he said. “The only thing that can bridge that gap is training.”
When a fire leader can recognize their own shortcomings and areas of improvement, and then take steps to fill those holes, they’re providing an excellent example for their team.
In addition to leading by example, knowing your team and their learning styles is an essential part of creating a program that resonates with them.
As shared by Chief Richardson, the teaching methods that have been used in years past aren’t necessarily the best way of reaching today’s recruits.
“Whether it's COVID or the learning style of the next generation, we have to have other capabilities,” Chief Kastros added.
“You have to have realistic, fun, and engaging training…it’s not just for simulations, it’s also important for leadership skills and role plays are a great tool for that,” Chief Kastros said.
He also stressed that professional development isn’t just for those employees who are looking for a promotion. It’s also for those who want to get better at their current job.
When it comes to motivating your team, different people have different things that drive them. It could be accomplishment, it could be career opportunities, it could be avoiding injury, it could be compensation, or anything else. That’s why, the chiefs said, it’s so crucial that you talk to your people and know how to keep up the motivation for training and professional development.
“If I can encourage you and reward you, I’m going to get a lot more out of you,” Chief Richardson said.
Having the right skills means nothing without the ability to apply them correctly and at the right time. Similarly, a professional development program won’t do your department any good if it doesn’t holistically evaluate each member of the department in all aspects of their job performance.
As shared by the chiefs during their presentation, utilizing objective metrics is a key component of a successful professional development program. These metrics might include incident statistics and training course completion, along with other quantifiable data.
A transparent promotional process, that includes clear goals and objectives, is another essential part of professional development programs. By keeping the process transparent, employees know exactly what they need to do for a promotion and can take charge of their own professional growth. For leaders, it simplifies and streamlines the program, allowing them to set expectations for the entire department.
Chief Kastros also shared the importance of learning from every challenge.
“One of the models you can use is, what did we do well, what did we need to do differently, and what’s our biggest takeaway?” he said.
At the end of the day, one of the most decisive factors that determine the success of a professional development program is getting buy-in from your team and getting employees and/or volunteers involved.
How you do that depends on your people and what they respond to, and determining that is your job as a leader.
“The key is getting people up, getting them involved, and adding to that ability,” Chief Richardson said.
To support these efforts, Vector Solutions offers a full suite of learning and training management, early intervention, and live skills assessment solutions (which includes a video evaluation component that can also be used for role playing). Whether you’re a large state organization or a small rural department, our solutions can help you build a successful professional development program at your agency.