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Emergency services modernize and personnel show burning ambition to get their MBAs

Cops and firefighters get MBAs

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London, Ont., deputy fire Chief Jim Jessop is putting marketing to work in fire prevention. (Jaime Hogge)

Fourteen years ago, before she rose through the ranks to become one of Canada’s highest-ranking RCMP officers, Chief Supt. Angela Workman-Stark took a step that might not have seemed obvious at the time: she enrolled in an MBA program.

“It’s a lot of leadership,” she says. “When something happens, people are looking to you.” At the time, Workman-Stark was an officer doing general patrol duties in Alberta, with seven years of service behind her. Enrolling in an MBA made her an outlier. For one thing, online programs, such as the one she enrolled in at Athabasca University, were still in their infancy. More important, emergency-service departments—traditional bastions of military-style promotion—were just embarking on a long transformation into modern, data-driven organizations.

“The environment has changed in the last 20 years,” says Ronald Bain, executive director of the Ontario Association of Police Chiefs. His organization now works with the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management to offer its police leadership program, which graduates about 25 students a year. In a field where problems have long been solved through gut instinct, MBAs push officers toward outcomes that can be measured, and problems that can be solved with numbers.

In London, Ont., deputy fire Chief Jim Jessop is pursuing an MBA part time through Brock University, and he says that emergency services are changing the way they think about leadership.

The way it used to be, “you rode on the back of a fire truck, you rose from the ranks, you became fire chief,” Jessop says. “It’s just not like that anymore.” He says degrees such as MBAs and master’s of public administration are key to helping departments adapt to new realities for public services—whether it’s limited resources or a new generation of employees who expect a more dynamic workplace than their forebears.

Besides, MBAs are about more than just management: fire services are taking plays from marketers’ data-driven playbooks to make fire departments more proactive. By using databases to track blazes, and then correlating them with geographic census data, Jessop’s fire department can aim prevention at the right people, in the right medium. That means newspaper ads about preventing kitchen fires (for older males, the most fire-prone demographic, it turns out), and radio spots and Facebook campaigns aimed at teenagers.

“Instead of just blindly making recommendations or taking action, it’s taught me to look at the business perspective,” says Jessop. “How am I going to measure results?”