Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Leadership
Change Agent: May 2012

Who can really make a difference?

April 20, 2012 
By Tom Bremner

Who can really make a difference?

  • Each individual member
  • Leaders / managers
  • Community
  • The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs
  • Provincial fire service agencies
  • Unions
  • Levels of government
  • Others?

Can we get better at this? Yes, we can. Look around; start thinking, and using diversity to your advantage.

At times, does it seem like, internally, we are doing more damage than good to our mission and vision-statement goals?

When we sit back and take a refreshing break from the everyday turmoil and frustrations in our fire departments, do we really understand how tangled the fire service has become? Or are we too worried about personal gain?


The most encouraging part of the twenty-first century fire service has been the willingness to start communicating with each other, and to our communities, about partnerships, visions, and understandings, and the sharing of real-time information concerning today’s challenges.

No longer should it be acceptable for us in the fire service to live or operate within an outdated bubble. We have too many lives, communities and outside pressures at stake not to modernize.

Does this mean we all can have or get what we want as individuals? No. It means we have to be creative, disciplined, and aware of our communities’ challenges and our personal challenges.

Look around and take the time to understand how far the Canadian fire service has come, and how much more we need to do. There has been a wonderful development in networking locally, provincially and nationally. This enhancement, over the last decade, has truly resulted in some huge steps forward in recognition, funding, partnerships, communications and structure. In our service – from the smallest to the largest departments – we are starting to witness change that is leading to improvements to our longstanding traditions of self destruction, power struggles, chiefs-know-everything attitudes, male domination and non-diversity: we’ve seen better-educated firefighters, officers and chiefs; union enhancements; and a recognition that we need to sell our service, promote our safety needs, practice what we preach and become united as one group.

Working agreements, partnerships, diversity, public relations, media campaigns, and health and wellness programs are just a few of the options fire-service leaders can use to make a difference – to promote morale among staff and promote the department in your community. No matter what is tried or considered, the most important thing is to understand your target outcomes, what needs to be accomplished, and what or who might make a difference.

Some would say that having a solid business plan in place would help but, who knows what really might be the best approach? You? Your team? Your community?  Speaking up can be nerve racking at times, but do it anyhow for the best of all involved.

No one person wins the war, but one person leading and organizing the team can win the battle. So, no matter how you choose to structure your plan to move forward, keeping current and on top of things within today’s complex fire-service environment is important. Leaders need to be leaders, managers need to be managers, members need to know the roles that they play, and understand the issues as part of a broader political framework than just being a firefighter. Understanding the difference between leading and managing, knowing the process, and understanding your role are good first steps.

Choosing a method for dealing with all that happens around us can be overwhelming. Still, with all the fears, challenges and unhappy people inside and outside the fire service, we can make a difference by opening up to change, moving beyond past dislikes, listening to others, facing realities and, most of all, trying different methods, ideas or systems that just might bring you and your organization very positive outcomes.

Keeping it simple and communicating with the people who need to know is a positive component. Helping each other is real mutual aid, in the finest terms, no matter if it’s at an emergency scene or around the station. Move beyond the past, challenge yourself and see what just might happen. Remember, in Canada there are far more smaller communities than larger ones. In the past, we always noted building and rebuilding, starting from the smallest to the biggest, but in this day and age it might be better to look at it the other way around.

So, who really can make a difference?

Tom Bremner is the fire chief for Salt Spring Island, B.C. Contact him at

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