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Editors’ pick 2014: Between Alarms – January

A phrase I often used to hear, “You are too young to be a fire chief,” is vanishing from today’s fire service.

January 7, 2014
By Arjuna George

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A phrase I often used to hear, “You are too young to be a fire chief,” is vanishing from today’s fire service. Young chief officers are breaking the mold and challenging tradition. Becoming a chief officer at a young age requires hard work, the right attitude and the willingness to step out of your comfort zone. 

New, positive attitudes toward younger chief officers are apparent; attitudes of acceptance and a willingness to cross-train one another are being acknowledged. While, it appears – at least from my experience at provincial and national conferences and training sessions – that most fire chiefs in Canada are between 50 and 60 years old, I am seeing more younger chiefs, assistant chiefs, deputy chiefs and assistant deputies at these events. However, with that shift come some challenges.  

I became a chief officer – an assistant chief – at the ripe age of 28. Many of the younger fire chiefs I see today lead small fire departments, which means they must have diverse skill sets and be up to date on training, operations and administration.

Traditionally, promotions in the fire service were based on age and years of service rather than skills, training, education, suitability and experience. How-ever, fire departments and municipalities are recognizing that the best people may not be those who have been around the longest, rather those who have embraced training and leadership and gone above and beyond.

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When I was first promoted to deputy chief in 2009, I found all eyes on me at courses, conferences and meetings, not because I was anything special, but because many wondered how someone so young could be a DC. This was a difficult challenge: the journey to acceptance was full of uncertainty. The road for young chief officers may be bumpy but I discovered that listening, learning, being humble, respecting my peers and doing my job to the best of my ability led to mutual respect and credibility. 

Here are some ideas to help current chiefs recognize the wealth of talent in the ranks and help the younger officers on their journeys to becoming chiefs.

  • •    The most important goal is to narrow the gap between senior chiefs and younger chief officers to build connections and form networks. The best way I can think of to do this is for new, young chiefs to join their provincial and national associations, attend conferences, and connect with mentors. As the baby-boomer chiefs hit retirement age, the Canadian fire service will experience a massive transition and young chief officers will have gigantic boots to fill. Young chief officers will not have the fire-ground experience that senior chiefs can offer. Therefore, young chief officers have an important job to do: we need to listen to our senior fire-service leaders, absorb all we can, and take note of areas in which we need to improve. Don’t discredit the knowledge and years of service in the room: we have only a short window of opportunity during which we can learn from these leaders. I owe my career longevity to many of my chief mentors, who accepted me early on and directed me on my fire-service path. 
  • •    Be humble. A mentor of mine once told me to listen twice as much as I talk. I have taken that guidance seriously and work hard to respect my fellow chiefs and senior members. No one respects a cocky young know-it-all chief officer. As a young gun, you have a responsibility to be humble, to listen and to respect those around you.
  • •    Over the last decade I have witnessed a change in attitudes as experienced chiefs have begun to see the value that younger chief officers can bring to the service. Young chiefs are full of new ideas and innovative business concepts and have a good grasp on technology. Next-generation chiefs have more formal schooling, are comfortable with technology and are hungry for change. Technology has infiltrated pretty much everything we do, so the skill sets that young chiefs offer are important.

Many of today’s chiefs who rose through the ranks experienced the paramilitary structure and strict command-and-control style of leadership. This is not always the best form of personnel management outside of emergency responses. Young chiefs bring a new perspective to today’s fire service in which fire crews work more collaboratively and the hierarchy is flattened. Don’t get me wrong – structure and hierarchy definitely play important roles in emergency services, but there are times when a more democratic approach works better. 

So, how do we survive and excel at gaining experience when our mentors hang up their turnouts? Given that we experience fewer fires than our predecessors did, we will have to use alternatives, for example, simulating command-and-control scenarios through table-top exercises, videos, or digitally. This knowledge gap will be a tough one to manage, but if we prepare now and learn the most we can from our current senior leaders, we will be in a better position to lead.

Being a young chief has enormous benefits and rewards, but do not rush into this role: be an excellent firefighter, an outstanding officer, and then a great chief. Without a great foundation, your transition to chief will be tough. Act wisely and refrain from being greedy in your quest to becoming a chief; consider your longevity and the likelihood of burnout, or worse – plateauing at a young age and becoming stale. Be cautious, once you get to the top, it is much more difficult to turn around and climb down that ladder. 

It is an honour when a seasoned fire chief asks you for your opinion, your feedback and your help. This is a sign of the times and an example of great mentorship. Together these two generations can do amazing things.  


Arjuna George is a 17-year veteran and the deputy fire chief of Operations on Salt Spring Island, B.C.  E-mail him at ageorge@saltspringfire.com and follow him on Twitter at @AJGeorgefire


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