More than 1,200 first responders have graduated from Executive Education’s professional development program

Students sit around round tables in a ballroom during the PSLD graduation ceremonyIt’s not exactly running into a burning building, making an arrest or saving a life, but Kerry Plemmons knew his final exam would still provide a challenge to the 39 law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMS workers seated in the University of Denver’s Tuscan Ballroom.

“For a lot of us, this is a high-vulnerability exercise,” said Plemmons, a professor of the practice at the Daniels College of Business, “to get up in front of everyone and talk about how they will be a better leader in public safety.”

But to graduate from the latest cohort of the Public Safety Leadership Development (PSLD) program, the oral final exam was a must. In front of their peers and supervisors, microphone in hand, each student had to answer three questions:

  • What will you do differently as a result of what you learned in the leadership training?
  • What part of the training was most useful?
  • What part of the training will you teach and “cascade” to those around you? How will you build the capacity of others?

As they spoke, Plemmons smiled and pumped his fist. When they finished, he shook their hands and handed over a diploma.

“I consider myself really lucky because I’ve met and worked with some terrific people in public safety,” Plemmons said.

Since PSLD began in 2008, Plemmons has taught more than 1,200 first responders from across the state of Colorado. For 15 years, the program, which is offered by Daniels Executive Education, has equipped students with leadership and communication skills to build stronger relationships in the office, in the field and in their personal lives. The experience they bring back to their employers makes for healthy and more effective teams, divisions and agencies too.

The inaugural PSLD cohort visited Churchill, Manitoba, in 2008 and took dog sleds across Hudson Bay. (Photo provided by Kerry Plemmons)

Plemmons created PSLD with George Heinrichs, co-founder of Intrado, an emergency 911 call system, and former sheriff’s deputy who saw critical flaws in the way first responders communicated with one another. In the wake of mass shootings at Columbine High School and an Aurora movie theater, Heinrichs wanted to bring together a diverse cross-section of first responders—people who may not have been formally trained in interpersonal relationships.

“When I went to the program, I thought it was going to be a chance to polish some things I already understood,” said Brandon Daruna, the CEO of the Eagle County Health District, who attended in 2016. “But the reality was, I really recognized quickly, that the perception that I had about the way I could be successful as a manager and leader was not really well-established in the actual logic or science of leadership or practice.”

Daruna had been an EMS since 2000 and, by 2014, was the chief of the Gilpin Ambulance Authority, which had been using PSLD to train its first responders. Daruna went along, “for solidarity’s sake, if nothing else.”

But the experience changed his life.

Leadership had always made Daruna uncomfortable; he never felt he fit the mold of a “leader.” He tried to emulate the old school, you-say-jump-I-say-how-high approach he had always observed, but it felt wrong.

“On the first day, Kerry said, ‘It’s inauthentic for you to practice leadership in a way that is not who you are, and there are many ways to approach this,’” Daruna said. “I really felt empowered to be who I was. All of a sudden, things like your intuition are applicable.”

Each PSLD session begins with an Insights Discovery assessment, a framework that places students on a spectrum of four colors and helps them identify their strengths, weaknesses and communication styles.

Two PSLD students complete an experiential exercise at The Nature Place. (Photo provided by Janet Redwine)

They explore their colors for the remainder of the five-day session. The curriculum mixes outdoor experiential activities with classroom sessions on managing teams, improving processes, and protecting mental and physical well-being.

The benefits of the training were immediate, Daruna said. His coworkers told him they noticed a “sea change” in his approach in the office. Because he was no longer trying to fit an archetype, Daruna was able to trust his instincts and lead in his own way.

The experience was so impactful, Daruna approached Plemmons about staying involved in the program. He earned his from Daniels MBA in 2018 and, today, is one of PSLD’s core teachers.

“One of the superpowers I have in this program is that I can say ‘we,’” Daruna said of his shared experience with PSLD students. “I have a natural kinship to these folks. When I see lightbulbs going off, similar to what happened to me, it’s rewarding.”

Daruna and Plemmons agree that those lightbulbs illuminate some of the blind spots in public safety training.

“If you go to a police academy, you’re trained how to shoot, how to arrest,” Plemmons said. “I think this program has built a niche on the other side of policing, which is not the arresting and the handcuffing, but the emotional intelligence, how to deal with people.”

At its core, PSLD closes a gap between first responders and the general public, who encounter each other relatively rarely. A majority of people never have to take an ambulance to the hospital, Daruna said. Outside of a traffic ticket, few people need to interact with law enforcement. Even fewer call the fire department because their house is on fire.

During a time when the public is more closely scrutinizing first responders, Plemmons and Daruna see PSLD as increasingly critical.

“It completely changes the approach to the jobs that we do, and I think that has follow-on effects to all of our organizations,” Daruna said, before turning his praise to Plemmons. “He has made a huge impact on our industry. And so, celebrating the program really is celebrating Kerry Plemmons, his dedication to it, his relationship building and his constant promotion and sales of the program and making sure it has continued to survive after all these years.”

Demand has only increased for PSLD, which is currently offered four times each year. Sessions regularly fill up a year in advance. Grants from Colorado Peace Officers Standards and Training make it possible for smaller, rural agencies to send their staff at little or no cost.

The results of each cohort’s “final exam” show that the time and money is worth it. With their supervisors looking on, the graduates-to-be praised their newfound self-awareness, their motivation to empower their teams and the networking opportunities they engaged in.

“They come up with apprehension and leave with exhilaration,” Plemmons said in an interview after the ceremony. “One of my personal missions is to help the reputation and the branding of cops. People in public safety are getting metaphorically and literally shot at every day and their lives are dangerous. They serve such an important need in our community—and I think they deserve more.”

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