Succession Planning for Ontario Fire Services

Executive Summary

The following presentation was given on May 8, 2013 at the 61th Annual Convention of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs by Linda Fairburn, President of Make Things Happen Limited. This presentation provides a brief overview of succession planning; examines six forces effecting succession to Chief Officer in Ontario fire services; reviews a succession planning and management replacement process; details eight steps you can take to become succession ready; and includes a demographic risk assessment template to get you started.


It's great to finally be here. I've been looking forward to our time together.

It's an honor to be here because of who you are and what you do. You keep us safe. You run towards danger when everyone else is running away. But still you wouldn't run into a fire without some safety equipment.

This morning I've come to bring you some "equipment" from my world so you can take care of yourself and your departments as well as you take care of the rest of the world. I've come to speak with you about succession planning in fire services. For those of you who don't know much about what that means I'm going to make that clear as we move along.

I've been a succession planner since God's dog was a puppy - that's 20 years in human time. During that period I've helped 100s of organizations change from at-risk and vulnerable to robust and succession ready.

Forty years ago, strategic planning was like succession planning is today. Now it's considered a best practice and SWOT analysis is taught in high school. My goal is to demystify the succession process and that's why I'm here with you today.

People ask me why I do this work. Really, I do this work because I am committed to creating powerful communities. Because when communities work well we all benefit and succession planning is at the heart of this. You can think of me as your leadership safety officer.

In this presentation I'll share with you what I've learned about succession planning in fire services and distil my years of experience into something useful for you to take away. I hope to tweak your interest in what we can do in partnership thorough succession planning to create a better future.

Four Objectives

Let's have a look now and I'll take you through them.

  1. Create an understanding of the succession planning process
  2. Present six themes, along with their driving and restraining forces, effecting succession to Chief Fire Officer in Ontario Fire Services
  3. Provide a practical process to create a succession plan in your department - 8 Steps to Succession Readiness
  4. Provide you with something to get started on right away

Pole: Show of hands. How many of you have succession planning on your "To Do" list? (About 50% of the room raised their hands) You're not alone.
Interviews with corporate CEOs recognize succession planning as their 3rd most important priority after financial results and strategic planning

But there could be a problem. Do we know what succession planning is? Let's start with a definition of Succession Planning.

Succession Planning

Succession planning is an effort to ensure continued effective performance of an organization over time by providing for leadership development and replacement

  • Succession planning includes all the thinking, planning, activities and preparations that take place in anticipation of and before the announcement of a defined departure date.
  • It involves organization development activities and
  • It is a component of Strategic Planning (Master Planning)

Replacement Planning

  • Replacement planning is a component of succession planning
  • Is a form of risk management
  • Reduces the catastrophe stemming from the immediate unplanned loss of a job incumbent

If you're not doing succession and replacement planning this can present a real problem. It's like having a home without a smoke detector. Smoke detectors don't prevent fires - they let you know when there's a problem so you can avert a catastrophe.

You spend a lot of time educating people about fire prevention by teaching us how to think. When I think spring - I know I'm supposed to check the batteries in my smoke detectors.

Like you, I also teach people how to prevent catastrophes in their organizations by thinking succession planning.

As critical as succession is, organizations are not prepared. The reasons for not being prepared are the same in my field as the ones that you hear." Not me." "Not now." "I thought I had more time." You're busy putting out real fires. My job is to make sure you have protection in your organizations and help you put out any fires, if they arise.

Here's an example from Ottawa of why you need a succession plan. Last year all three deputies left: one moved up and the other two retired. Talk about trial by fire. To me, this is like the house burned down!

There is a cost for not being prepared. This cost the department and municipality time, money and energy. Without the support of the corporation, cooperation from the unions and the planning of a visionary leader this would have been a catastrophe!

Fire services prepare people for things that rarely happen, but still we need to be prepared in case they do. Succession planning is different because I can guarantee you that everyone in your department will eventually leave. You need to prepare before your house is on fire.

Six Themes Impacting Succession to Chief Officer

From my conversations with CAOs and Chiefs from across the province six themes have emerged around succession planning in fire services. Each of these themes has a positive and negative impact on succession planning. We will look at each theme in detail.

  1. Motivation
  2. Culture
  3. Structure
  4. Training
  5. Demographics
  6. Turnover Rates

Let me tell you about something I use in my work called Force Field Analysis. I used this to assess the forces that help and hinder change - change in this case is succession planning in fire services. It's really quite simple.

There are driving forces that move change along and there are restraining forces that slow change down. We also call these forces the "levers of change" because we can use them like throttles to steer the direction of change and to speed change up or slow it down.

Using an example from your world, understanding force field analysis is like operating a fire hose. You want enough force to deliver the water. But you better be able to hold the hose and overcome the resistance to move closer to the fire. You need to know and understand this to do your work.

Now let's look at driving and restraining forces in relationship to the themes.

Motivation Issues Effecting Succession to Chief Officer

Driving Forces

  • Possessing a desire to lead a dynamic organization
  • Willingness to assume the responsibilities and accountability that go hand-in-hand with leadership
  • Initiative to seek professional development opportunities to grow into chief officers

When I asked one chief why he wanted to be chief he said without missing a beat "I want to lead a dynamic organization" And from what I've come to know about fire services it is that and more. Clearly this person would be successful in any field because he has the inner drive and desire to lead.

These are the fires you want to fan. Find these people and support them. What gets in the way?

Restraining Forces

  • Narrow wage gap between management and union top tier
  • Chiefs are never off duty
  • Loss of job security when stepping out of the union

There will always be restraining forces in any change initiative. That's a given. But we have to acknowledge them. When we know what they are we can work with them and take steps to mitigate their effects. This is the other side of the throttle.

These are the fires you want to put out, mitigate and problem solve.

Now let's look at the culture of fire services.

Culture Issues Effecting Succession to Chief Officer

Driving Forces

  • Opportunities for career oriented individuals
  • Family tradition

Restraining Forces

  • Lack of union involvement in management training
  • Job oriented workforce
  • Attachment to status quo

In my interviews, one person described fire services as "200 years of progress unimpeded by change." That's a lot of status quo.

In organization development, I work to change the culture of organizations. Culture is defined as "the way things work around here." It is a pattern of decision-making and problem-solving that works well enough that it's taught to the new hires. And if it's not taught, then it's picked up soon enough. It's hard to change the status quo.

Let's try this. Clasp your hands together in the way that is comfortable and familiar. Now change them around in the other direction. What do you notice? Is it uncomfortable? Why? It's not familiar. Now change them back. What do you notice? Now change them back in the other direction. Now change them back and forth. Faster.
Shake out your hands. Now clasp your hands together again. And switch. What do you notice now? Not so uncomfortable. Not so much difference

Perhaps the greatest human weakness is our addiction to comfort. Change is difficult but not impossible.

Every organization gets the results it gets through its design. And at the heart of design is structure. Now let's look at structure.

Structural Issues Effecting Succession to Chief Officer

Driving Forces

  • Large public sector utility that requires professional management skills
  • Changing operating environment - amalgamations
  • Need for strategic leadership
  • Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System OMERS facilitates early retirement of workers

Poll: Show of hands. Who here will have the OMERS numbers to retire by the end of 2014? (About 25% - 30% of the room raised their hands)

You are the most dangerous people in fire services. You are the untouchables. You're almost home free. You have the ability to make a big difference. You could be dangerous to the status quo.

It's getting complicated out there and we all need to build on the shoulders of others. Certain people have a lot to offer and are in a golden place to lead change, to build more effective organizations. Some of you are about to retire. If we don't make the opportunity to capture your knowledge and wisdom it will be gone.

Succession planning is the way you can capture the knowledge and wisdom and start to prepare for and develop the skills required by the complexities of large utilities, amalgamations and strategic leadership. Let's look at what gets in the way.

Restraining Forces

  • Mature institution - 200 years
  • Paramilitary structure
  • Powerful union
  • Varying sizes and geographical locations of departments often requires relocation for advancement - hard on families
  • Moving from shift work to full-time work
  • Moving from union seniority to "loyalty" agreement with municipalities

These are powerful forces Nevertheless they exist and you must search for ways to reduce their gravitational pull. It will take time and will power to make changes here. But by working in partnership with a succession planning and management focus, you could make a huge difference in balancing these restraining forces. Now let's look at training.

Training Issues Effecting Succession to Chief Officer

Driving Forces

  • Chief officer is a member of a municipal management team
  • Chiefs already have the responsibility for development of all personnel under their command
  • Succession planning is a component of CFAI Accreditation

These are strong forces that you can use to move succession planning forward.

Restraining Forces

  • No clear career path to chief officer
  • Non-binding standards
  • Lack of competence models and measurements
  • Union priorities hinder management training so that it is largely self-directed

Having a clear path to chief is important. In high schools, for example, they were able to increase graduation rates from below 50% to 93% by identifying a clear path between school subjects and jobs in the work place. Now management training is largely self-directed or influenced by family members already in fire services. I know the standards are in flux and these will get sorted out.

What other forces are affecting the workforce talent pool? Demographics.

Demographic Issues Effecting Succession to Chief Officer

According to Statistics Canada in the decade of 2000 - 2010

  • The age group 35 - 44 is the only age group on record to decrease in size while
  • The age group 55 - 64 increased by 1.5 million people, more than any other age group on record

We knew this was coming and now it's here. The numbers of middle career workers is decreasing while the numbers of older workers is increasing.

Story: I once worked with a CEO I'll call John. John looked at me and said, "Oh no! I just realized that succession planning is about hiring the right people. The two people I thought could be my replacement won't work. One is the same age as I am and the other one has some serious health issues. We have hired to replace positions and not for leadership potential. We don't have any one else."

Analyzing and understanding the demographics of your workforce will help you to avoid holes left by pending retirements.

I have been able to collect data about the turnover rates for CEOs of charitable corporations. If we apply the charitable corporations' turnover statistics for CEOs to the 453 fire services registered with OAFC, here's what we see.

Charitable Corporations' Turn Over Applied to Fire Services

Applied to the 453 Fire Departments in Ontario

  • 10 % annual turnover - 45
  • 34% of those are terminations - 15
  • 66% are resignations - 30- with 1/3 of those retiring from the workforce and taking their experience with them
  • 50% of leaders are over the age 50 and will retire by 2023

These six themes point to a need for succession planning but who is responsible for making this happen?

Who is Responsible for Succession Plans?

  • The municipality is responsible for succession planning and replacement of the Chief Fire Officer
  • The Chief Fire Officer is responsible for succession planning for the Deputy and Assistant Deputy Chiefs
  • The Chief Fire Officer is responsible - in conjunction with Deputy and Assistant Deputy Chiefs - for succession planning of all other fire personnel

Chiefs, you can't plan your own replacement but you can do your best to ensure there are internal candidates ready for promotion or in the case of smaller departments ready to move into leadership roles. How do you do that?

Succession planning and management replacement is a process. In the corporate world the process has seven features.

Succession Planning and Management Replacement

  1. Non-union activity
  2. Applies to any number of staff positions - one or many
  3. Can vary in scope from one to many - some fire departments have hundreds and thousands of workers
  4. Starts at the top and works sequentially down through the levels of the organization
  5. Managed by CEO or HR - don't wait for HR
  6. Anchored by policy - you already have the responsibility and authority
  7. Tied into performance management systems

So do you think you can reasonably add this into your work year? I have helped you out by translating this process into what it would look like in fire services.

Succession and Replacement Planning In Fire Services

Level 1 - Replacement planning for the Chief Fire Officer

Level 2 - Replacement planning for the senior officers and direct reports to Chief Deputy & Assistant Deputy Officer (Platoon Chiefs)

Level 3 - Replacement planning for the middle management - union Platoon and District Chiefs, Captains

Level 4 - Replacement planning for the all other rank and file and volunteer positions

Level 5 - External talent pool recruiting new hires, volunteers and retired personnel.
Create an external talent pool that is not linked to a position. The intent of this level is to include external groups such as sister and professional organizations, membership groups, volunteers and other talented individuals who may be tapped on short notice.
How should you begin? I thought you might want to know so I developed a simplified process just for fire services to get you started. It should fit in nicely with what municipal HR may eventually require of you and they'll be impressed that you're ahead of the game.

8 Steps to Succession Readiness for Fire Services

  1. Create a team, if possible, to work on succession planning composed of the Chief and senior management
  2. Conduct a demographic risk assessment of the department
  3. Identify "at risk" positions of ages 50 - 55+, determine OMERS numbers and the year these will be reached
  4. Begin with at-risk, non-union management positions
  5. Create a replacement and training development plan for each potential successor to management positions
  6. Attach a training and development plan to the candidates' performance review
  7. Update annually - this is a living plan
  8. Link the plan to the training and development budget and Master Plan


I have included here a template for Step 2 - a demographic risk assessment.


Fire Force Demographic Risk Assessment Template







TOTAL 50-55+

Management Staff

Levels 1 & 2








Line Management Staff

Level 3








Line Staff

Level 4








Volunteer Staff

Level 5

















Personnel levels are listed in the left column followed by total workforce numbers that include all personnel.

The columns to the right of that indicate various age groups. This sample starts at age 40 but you could expand this to include all age groups. The heavy vertical line indicates the at-risk point and all personnel to the right of that line fall into this category. These are the ones that require immediate attention for succession and replacement planning.

The far right column indicates the number of at-risk personnel and the percentage they represent in their staff category. You could even expand on this by putting in names and dates.

In Summary this Presentation

  • Provided a brief overview to get you interested in continuing with succession planning
  • Examined six forces effecting succession to Chief Officer in fire services
  • Reviewed a succession planning and management process
  • Eight steps you can take to become succession ready
  • Demographic risk assessment template to get you started

I have given you a starting point to begin taking steps to succession readiness.


Story: I once worked with a well-known CEO who for years had a 3-paragraph succession plan. After our work together was completed she said, "I didn't know that this was missing because I didn't know what I didn't know." This is valuable information that I making available to you. After today, if you take these steps, you'll be ahead of her.

Ontario fire services are at a crossroads and succession planning can help mitigate the restraining forces that were identified. While restraining forces exist, much can be accomplished through succession planning for middle management through to senior positions.

Start now! This process can be accomplished in as few as 15 team hours. Some of you will need assistance to get started and coaching to make it over the finish line. Just remember that I'm here to support you in doing this critical work.

Don't wait for the first hire of a non-fire MBA chief.

I hope you found this presentation enlightening. I certainly enjoyed my research I want to thank those of you who took the time to speak with me. You helped me make this topic more relevant to fire services.

I believe a relationship between what you do and what I do could ensure a healthy sustainable future.

I am honoured to be here and grateful for the privilege of getting to know you. I see who you are in the world and the significant contributions you make to our communities. I thank you for your time. Stay safe.

When it comes to Succession Planning "Chance Favors a Prepared Mind." Goethe

Get the succession planning conversation going in your organization today!

© Linda K Fairburn

Available for Training, Consulting and Coaching
Make Things Happen Limited
Linda K. Fairburn MSOD
Guelph, Ontario, Canada

Linda Fairburn is an expert in succession planning and a Canadian best selling author on the subject. She holds advanced degrees in Adult Education and Organization Development. Her company, Make Things Happen, offers consulting, training and coaching to support succession planning and leadership change in Canada and the US. With nearly 2 decades of succession planning experience Linda has worked with hundreds of public, private and nonprofit corporations providing the know-how to successfully guide the challenging process of leader transition.