Transformational Change in the Fire Service
A Southwest fire department was facing a devastating workforce exodus resulting from an aging workforce that will cause many to retire at the same time. Sixty-five percent of the workforce, with an average tenure of 25 years, was expected to leave over the course of seven years with the majority of those retiring within five years. Promoting mid-level staff into management and hiring replacements would only partially solve the problem. The training of senior-level employees requires years of specialized focus, mentorship and hands-on experience. Not only was the outlook precarious for the department, but the safety of the entire community would be at risk if the managers failed to act quickly and effectively. Seity’s charge was to analyze the organizational impact caused by the expected retirement over the next seven years.
1) Identify informal leaders, key influencers and change agents who would help smooth the transition and play a leadership role moving forward.
2) Reduce potential impact of the loss of decades of institutional knowledge disappearing soon.
3) Examine the current departmental culture identifying key areas that would be potentially endangered by the impending departures.
4) Develop a decision-making strategy to preserve and nourish the positive cultural elements and values fundamental to a highly functioning fire department.
Fire departments have a fraternal-like organizational culture where members are family, and most employees spend their entire careers in the same department. Tight bonds enhance trust and enable individual and group acts of courage. However, this powerful cultural departmental code compounded the challenge of bridging the leadership gap on the horizon. The department faced a host of concerns — hiring, selection, onboarding, training, skill development, & career development.
The fire chief was feeling pressure that the usual methods to analyze and address this problem would not mitigate it long-term. He reached out to a respected business leader, who recommended Seity. After an initial meeting with the fire chief, Seity was given the okay to proceed with its Organizational Effectiveness system perspective starting with the Organization Network Analysis (ONA) process. But not everyone was as willing. The biggest barrier was an individual with significant influence who challenged Seity, saying he was resistant to outsiders and that the rare times they used outside consultants, they were usually ex firefighters. Making a compelling case over two hours, Seity persuaded him to join the effort. He was sufficiently on board to agree to appear in a video with the fire chief to promote engagement and participation by firefighters in the ONA process.
The department started making changes immediately. Eighteen months after the first employee surveys were fielded, these initiatives have been deployed:
1. In the past, trainings were only offered to a select few. Today, any employee can sit in on any training to better understand how the department is moving forward. For example, while some specialized training isn’t offered to all firefighters, all firefighters are invited to learn about the steps involved to get certified and decide if they want to pursue that certification.
2. They have moved beyond just ‘pass the test’ criteria to determine if firefighters can be promoted. There is a far greater focus on soft skills, not just technical skills. Three candidates vying to be captains were declined promotions because they couldn’t adequately answer questions related to the human side of being a captain.
3. A coaching program has been adopted so less experienced personnel can observe the behaviors of veteran firefighters and assess if leadership appeals to them. Recruits are asked for input as the future of the department is mapped out. The department is open to everyone learning from each other as they navigate the transition together. This is an example of creating an organizational learning environment.
4. They have abolished a seasonal promotional process. Promotions now take place throughout the year, and the process is far more transparent.
5. They are re-evaluating their selection and hiring process to include soft skill competencies and not just technical skills.
Encouragingly, the department has shared the process and maps with superiors in municipal government to work on greater connectivity “upstream,” as well as “downstream.” The department has the passion and commitment to achieve their personnel needs. Its future sits on a solid foundation.