PUTTING ISSUES INTO PERSPECTIVE
The often-unrecognized value of seasoned personnel
By A.J. Heightman, MPA, EMT-P
Human resource experts have shown that employees who leave an organi- zation take a substantial amount of
invaluable business and operational knowledge,
as well as organizational and political contacts
and connections, with them. This large bundle of knowledge that a person acquires over
time is known as “institutional knowledge.”
It’s difficult to replace or duplicate by organizations, especially when internal systems to
retain, replace or document it are nonexistent.
Very few metrics or measures exist to quantify the loss—or value—of institutional knowledge, continuity and history. The loss typically
is manifested as turnover, recruitment, replacement and training costs that many organizations face. 1
I’ve recently witnessed several people in
our industry either pushed out of key posi-tons or who quit after their experience and
value to their organization was overlooked
In one case, a new fire chief moved an inexperienced fire officer into the position of EMS
battalion chief position and transferred the
seasoned 25-year EMS veteran to head up
another division. The new EMS chief knew
nothing about this experienced employee’s
EMS history, advances or projects underway.
Their program has since spiraled backward;
it will take years to recover from this loss of
institutional knowledge in that position.
In another instance, an industry colleague
who did the work of four people stated her
case to a new owner and requested more assistance. It fell on deaf ears and resulted in her
resignation. They lost more than 20 years of
solid institutional knowledge which may take
them years to recover.
I don’t have firm solutions to stop inept,
political or budget-blind managers from
making stupid moves that cost them to lose
employees with extensive institutional knowledge, but I want to present a few points to
make you more aware of the problem and help
you avoid creating a black hole that will damage or slow the progress of your organization.
A PERSONAL EXAMPLE
My father’s knowledge, ability and drive for
serving the citizens of Scranton, Pa., as the
captain-in-charge of the fire department’s
ambulance division was legendary. I was in
awe of how much he knew and, more importantly, the people and connections he had made
throughout his long career.
I was also amazed at how many times he
“saved” the fire department ambulance division because of his institutional knowledge,
respect and political aptitude.
Every time the city council or mayor threat-
ened to eliminate the ambulance service to
reduce the city budget, my dad would reach
out to reporters—who he kept well informed
on a daily basis—and give them accurate facts
and reasons why eliminating the ambulance
service would be detrimental to city residents.
His well-established media sources would
then editorialize why the city should main-
tain its “valuable and highly respected ambu-
He also wisely mirrored the professional
appearance of the respected medical commu-
nity, requiring his personnel to wear a uniform
hat and white, starched coveralls or a starched
white shirt and navy blue pants. In addition to
looking professional, he made sure his crews
understood that bright white ensured they
could be easily seen in traffic and large crowds.
When I was 18 years old and heading out
the front door to return to college, a man
approached and asked me to get my father. I
did and he made my father sign for a certified
letter from the city of Scranton informing him
that, because of severe budget problems, a decision had been made to terminate the employment of six firefighters. The city made the
crazy decision to eliminate the top three highest in seniority and three newest firefighters.
My dad was then number two in department seniority. I was crushed, but the cruel
action offered valuable imprint to my young
mind, and because of what I saw occur after
my father was summarily terminated after his
30 years of experience, I became committed to
never ignore a person’s institutional knowledge.
My father attempted to move on, but, even
though he’d mentored each of his lieutenants,
his staff hadn’t been able to absorb the depth
of his institutional knowledge.
Torn between the emotional pain and anger
of his abrupt dismissal and his dedication to
the city ambulance service, my father continued to counsel his beloved crews behind the
There’s significant nutritional value in a fruit or vegetable that’s ripened just as there’s also significant
value in the individual who has been cultivated,
trained, nurtured, mentored and blossomed in your
organization. Photo A.J. Heightman