Public safety leadership academy breeds better relationships, safer communities
In Central Virginia, future police and fire leaders learn from working together
By Lt. W. Michael Phibbs
An old adage says by the time commanders arrive on the scene, it’s too late to start passing out business cards. In public safety, there is no question you will have to work with other agencies, whether on firegrounds or crime scenes. The success of responding agencies in resolving those scenes depends in great part on the on-scene commanders having established relationships before the call. This helps them cooperate and coordinate resources and work jointly through priority activities on scenes.
In Central Virginia, public safety agencies fully embraced that concept and created the Metro Richmond Public Safety Leadership Academy as a forward-thinking resource for the evolving public safety environment. In nearly a decade since the program was developed, the ability of the region’s public safety agencies to cooperate, work events together and respond to local and regional emergencies continues to strengthen and grow.
What does the program entail?
The Metro Richmond Public Safety Leadership Academy began in 2014. The first class had 36 students from 11 agencies. By 2023, 22 public safety agencies had requested to send a total of 72 students. Over this time the program has evolved to meet the challenges of the dynamic public safety environment. The overarching goal to develop leaders and create partnerships has never changed, but lessons learned necessitated the tweaking of the curriculum to better meet students’ needs. Because of the program’s success, open seats are highly coveted.
The first day of the class begins with a four-hour review of students’ DISC assessments (a personality profile that evaluates dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness) and how their individual personality styles interact with others. Next, they attend a lesson on leadership from a person at the command level with one of the participating public safety agencies. After that students are assigned groups and given a choice of projects to research and present on two weeks after the training program. These projects are invaluable to reinforcing relationships built during the course.
The students next attend a class on team building. Finally, at the end of the first day, they are given a critical incident to work on. We found during the first critical incident that students will gravitate toward working with students in groups from their own profession. The goal is to get them, by the end of the course, to work collaboratively to frame the incident and develop a unified approach to resolving it.
On the second day, the students attend a “chiefs luncheon” where they eat with command-level personnel from all the participating agencies. After the lunch, the students can discuss issues with the command staff members. They are free to discuss their projects or anything on their minds. The one rule is that students are not allowed to ask about an agency’s internal personnel matters. Over the years, the commanders and students have praised the luncheon as a valuable networking experience.
‘Something new in my slide deck’
On the fifth day, the groups are given a more complex capstone critical incident, and students show how they can put all the training they have received together. The instructors and evaluators understand there is no one correct way to resolve the issue; rather, they are looking to evaluate how the groups function and their problem-solving approach. After the exercise, the evaluators review the incident and discuss with the groups how they analyzed the indecent and worked together to determine priorities.
Afterward, the groups begin the “decision house” exercise. In many other exercises, individuals go into rooms and sit in front of panels to discuss how they would handle various scenarios. In our training, the students stay with their groups throughout. They go into a room with evaluators and role players who have previously attended the course. The scenarios are based on real incidents. One student is in the “hot seat.” The scenario is read, and a role player begins to act. It is up to the individual student to try to resolve the issue. If the student becomes flustered or can’t resolve the issue, they can tap out, and another student continues. Afterward, the students, evaluators and role players discuss the issue and attempt to resolve it. The groups will then continue to other rooms and rotate positions. One student said after watching one scenario, “I wouldn’t have done it that way, but now I have something new in my slide deck.” The goal is for students to learn from each other as they apply the skills and techniques they have developed over the course of the program.
The group projects were developed for two main reasons. First, the students have two additional weeks outside of class to research, discuss and develop their presentations, with the idea that if they continue to work together, they will develop a sustained relationship as they move up in public safety. Second, the groups are used to research and develop topics submitted by the command staff. The first few year's projects included employee engagement, recruiting, performance management, etc. However, in the past few years, the projects have begun to include topics such as how artificial intelligence will impact public safety, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and associated safety concerns, and agency branding to attract, engage and retain employees. As time goes forward the project will continue to evolve to reflect the changing atmosphere of public safety.
Relationships make the region strong
The program has been a great success in central Virginia. Several former students have now attained command-level ranks within their organizations. They recognize that the classes may be consistent with those taught in other programs, but the relationships built within them are what help make the region strong. As they move up in the ranks, they continue to learn and collaborate.
Over the years we have seen silos broken down and agencies working collaboratively to the benefit of their greater communities. In major events, which may be law enforcement- or fire-centric, we find personnel from different agencies occupying positions in plans, logistics, situation units and resource units. Overall, the program is part of the cement that holds the region’s public safety network together.
A challenge for any region that wishes to develop such a program is to determine how to share costs. For the first three years, the instructor cadre had no money to cover costs and relied on each agency to provide materials such as notebooks, pens and paper. Though many of the regional instructors teach internationally, they volunteered their time for this program. Over the years the cadre has found organizations to donate funds for the instructors.
The program continues to evolve. When it began, the weeklong class was filled completely with instruction time. Students said it was hard to work with their groups when they had back-to-back classes. We began to create space in the training to allow the groups time to develop their relationships. We have adjusted the curriculum and implemented new classes to meet the needs of today’s first-line supervisors. We still include classes on performance management (taught by human resources professionals), communication (taught by a police major and assistant fire chief) and mental health, but we’ve added classes on bias, toxic leadership and active bystander training. A presentation by a class police captain and now-retired fire battalion chief on their challenges and successes as females in public safety has received rave reviews since the first year.
In 2023 we decided to test a broader idea. We invited the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) and a Fortune 500 company to each send two students to the program. The cadre recognized that VDEM will have representatives at many major incidents. It made sense to invite VDEM to send members and incorporate them into the regional program. Additionally, over the years there have been many words spent discussing how the private sector and public safety could learn from each other. Thus two students from a regional Fortune 500 company participated in the training as well. They were assigned to different groups. During the training, the groups discussed the similarities and different perspectives public safety and the private sector have on topics. Overall, inviting the two new groups was extremely beneficial.
With many of the original cadre still a part of the program, how will the program build sustainability into the future? To ensure the program’s continuation, all students are encouraged to become members of the cadre. Cadre members show new members the ropes, and if they wish, they can rotate off the day-to-day operations. In this way, the program can utilize its proven structure but still stay fresh and relevant for the years to come.
The Metro Richmond Public Safety Leadership Academy started with the idea that in public safety, we all face the same management and leadership challenges. By learning and working together, we can develop better leaders and build lasting relationships. The impact will make for more effective public safety agencies and safer communities throughout the region.
Over the years the approach has proven to be a success. We encourage other regions to develop their own programs.
About the author
Lieutenant W. Michael Phibbs has more than 28 years of experience in law enforcement. He is a member of the Central Virginia Type 3 All-Hazard Incident Management Team and is qualified as an Operations Section Chief and an Air Operations Branch Director. He has worked in those roles in national, regional, state and local events and disasters.