We were about 2/3rds through our career when Eddie described his Idiot Replacement Theory (IRT). For every old-school idiot, jerk or loser who retired, our generation would provide an equally inept replacement. I was shocked when he originally made that statement and wondered if it still was true.


We were part of the hundreds hired thirty years ago as a collection of rural VFDs grew into an urban county fire department. Our first line supervisors were appointed years before affirmative action. The promotion process was a “store-bought” 100 question multiple choice exam. Candidates who scored as low as 47/100 were promoted.

I worked for one of these old-school lieutenants at an engine-tiller truck-ambulance house. He was a hometown volunteer who applied for a county job when his construction trades company failed in the middle of a building boom. He could barely read or write. He had no supervisory skills and a wicked temper. He refused to allow his firefighters to get turned over as back-up drivers.

Just one firefighter was a back-up engine driver, three firefighters were tiller-qualified. All obtained training before they were assigned to this station. The truck sergeant was the back-up tractor driver if both of the apparatus technicians were off.


As 20-something baby boomers, we believed that we were smarter, better and more capable than the 40, 50 and 60 year old chiefs, captains and senior firefighters. Just ask us.

We had more formal education. We had folders bulging with NFPA/ProBoard and state EMS certifications. We competed for promotions by taking validated, diversity-appropriate promotional exams that had a written and performance component. In order to qualify for the exam, we had to meet time-in-grade and career development requirements. The difference from the #1 spot to the #15 spot in promotional eligible list was less than 2.4127 points.

As 40-somethings we promoted into the middle management ranks: staff jobs, specialty section supervisors and field battalion chiefs. That was when Eddie, working at a staff job, described the idiot replacement theory.


It has been about 15 years since Eddie expressed his theory. Our group now makes up most of the senior department leadership. Impressive resumes, some with graduate degrees, and many completing the NFA Executive Fire Officer program (HERE). A few are credentialed as a Chief Fire Officer (HERE). About 40% of the senior staff were/are paramedics.

The issues are different. The disconnect, dysfunction and anger expressed by those hired in the past six years sound frustratingly familiar.


When the EMS division started in the early 1980's, the department established a separate rank structure for firefighter/paramedics to meet the medical director's need for someone to be in charge of each paramedic ambulance. It also was a way to provide ALS providers more pay.

By the 1990s it was clear that the dual rank structure was strangling the ability of the department to best use talented personnel. After many false starts, the department is implementing a long-overdue merging of the company officer positions into a single "all hazards" rank structure.

At the same time the department is reconfiguring the staffing of paramedic ambulances. From an EMS Lieutenant/firefighter + medic/firefighter to a firemedic + EMT/firefighter (1+1).

In a department known for making very complex solutions, merging the company officer ranks, reconfiguring paramedic ambulance staffing and career development are interrelated.

When I talk to the paramedic/firefighters from my era that are still on the job, they feel betrayed by the department. Their investment in EMS seems unappreciated and minimized. Moving lieutenant positions from medic ambulances to ladder companies is a kick in the teeth. Yet another example that ems is second-class. The most articulate advocate for this perspective set up a listserv to support his position.

Firemedics are a new rank designed to attract experienced paramedics who would become paramedic/firefighters and start at a higher pay rate. When I talk to firemedics that came on in the past six years, they complain about a lengthy intern process that is designed to crush initiative and competency. Not much love when a national registry paramedic with years of pre-employment experience in a 1-and-1 or chase car system is berated by a senior ems supervisor with state emt-intermediate card and a much smaller ALS skill set.

The firemedics point out that the department has made two or three changes in “career development” that keeps piling on the time they need need to spend on the street before they can take the “all-hazards” lieutenant exam. They set up a blog site that, through anonymous postings, are brutal in their assessment of senior staff.

Especially after promoting 31 lieutenants from the first “all-hazards” promotional exam. The department made a change in the time-in-grade requirement that denied access to most of the firemedics that were recruited with the opportunity of quick promotions. I guess the effort to find experienced national registry paramedics does not count towards their “qualification” to become lieutenants. Only the time spent on local streets will count.


There seems to be the same percentage of “idiots” in senior positions today as there were 30 years ago. Better credentialed, better educated, more effective communicators but still maintaining that disconnect and dysfunction that made us angry decades ago.

Henry Mintzberg is the John Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal. In the July-August 2009 edition of Harvard Business Review, Mintzberg explains a crisis worse than the economy, the “deprecation in companies of communities - people’s sense of belonging to and caring for something larger than themselves.”

In the next Urban Commander article, we will look at how YOU can improve this situation. It will NOT require a ”Beer Summit.” Link to "Rebuilding Companies as Communities" (HERE)

Mike “FossilMedic” Ward
Urban Commander Series
go to Firegeezer.com to follow this series

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Comment by Mike Ward on August 6, 2009 at 5:29am
Mick and Art:

Thanks for the replies.

I think that we always will have:

20 somethings that know everything
40 somethings that are great, OK, and awful as leaders
60 somethings that do not trust anyone under 40.

I am distressed that my former department continues to mangle EMS. I hoped that, with 40% of the leaders with paramedic experience, decisions would be better than they were when all of the leaders had first aid cards.

Maybe education, credentialling and experience are not as valuable as we thought.
Comment by Mick Mayers on August 4, 2009 at 8:30pm
When I saw your title indicating that we were replacing our old idiots with new and improved idiots, I was very worried. However, after reading your post, as an old and lousy idiot, I guess I'm safe for now.

All that aside, very nice post. I have struggled for a long period of time with the concept some officers have of allowing a team to build and develop, then tearing it down to "spread the wealth". Or chiefs making decisions in a total vacuum, not listening to the people who work for them (we were supposed to surround ourselves with the best, weren't we?) And again, like in this case, creating a convoluted system then changing the rules half-way through the process.

I look forward to reading the rest of the story. Although we have gone through some turbulent times in the past, we now seem to be moving toward the light. Maybe I can share some of that if interested. keep up the great work.
Comment by Art "ChiefReason" Goodrich on August 2, 2009 at 10:05pm
It sounds like you just described the "good ole boy" principles in reverse.
Under "good ole boy", you have younger, brighter students of fire/EMS wanting to raise the bar of the department while the good ole boys sit at the bar. The young ones will finally get frustrated and join them or move on.
But to have highly qualified fire/EMS veterans being pushed out by the incompetent is mind-boggling.
Dues have been paid. The work has been done and promotions earned.
To be denied would be grounds for a revolution of sorts.
Comment by Mike Ward on August 2, 2009 at 4:03pm
Thanks Jack ...

one of the themes we will cover in the "Urban Commander" series.

Comment by Mike Ward on August 2, 2009 at 3:23pm

Thanks for the post. How can a chief with EFO & CFO be incompetent?

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