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Change Agent: March 2013

What do paramilitary-style operations mean within Canada’s fire-rescue services if everyone wants his or her own way?

March 4, 2013 
By Tom Bremner

What do paramilitary-style operations mean within Canada’s fire-rescue services if everyone wants his or her own way?

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the mission of the fire-emergency service from coast to coast to coast. It seems, in many cases, that the paramilitary objectives we have followed or aimed towards for decades have flown out the window and changed, in some cases for the better and other cases for the worse. How many times have you witnessed disrespect, up or down the chain of command, in your halls? Respect and trust must flow in both directions, regularly, not just once in a while or for personal gain. We need to fully recognize the many partnerships among the various levels in our departments that make up today’s fire and emergency services.

Even kids know when they are treated disrespectfully, so why do we disrespect each other as adults and, more importantly, why do we tolerate it? Why is there turmoil in our stations? Is it really that hard to figure out why this happens, or do we just turn a blind eye to it until the tension in our workplaces piles up deeply enough that it affects our personal worlds and finally explodes? In most cases, we know the answer: this workplace stress is a result of myriad events, activities and circumstances.

Those who write about leadership for this magazine have talked extensively about communication as the key to effectively managing the individuals and teams in our fire halls. Consider these questions and whether throwing them out on the table might lead to positive discussion in your department: Why are there so many power struggles in our fire halls? Is communicating with each other really that tough? Are we involved in the fire-emergency services to protect the public and be team members, or have individual personalities and jealously taken over? Is there a more advanced functional structure that we need to adopt so that we can work together better? How do we regain respect, trust and communication in our departments? How do we ensure that positive efforts and energies will be extended or offered by all? Can we create a healthier workplace through improved physical and psychological approaches? Maybe healthier bodies and minds would produce fewer problems?

Mindsets, personal attitudes and refocusing on the provision of service must be the priorities for change. Has the “me” mindset created more problems? Have internal issues spiralled too far for recovery? Blame can be levied at all levels and in all directions. The public, over the last few years, has become more aware of our internal issues, which results in more services being targeted by public reviews, demands, attacks, budget cuts and outcries. It’s up to us to help ourselves. We need to be aware of public perception while being prepared to listen and accept responsibility for the negative culture we’ve created by understanding how we need to change in order to create the structure we need to survive and provide firefighter safety and public safety.

When was last time that the members in your department sat around the table and were open and honest with each other without an agenda? If the history of such meetings shows mistrust or disrespect, then maybe it’s time for all sides to reflect and consider how individuals and groups can refocus on the common goal of firefighter and public safety. No person or group can fix this without being part of a team.

In some situations, change will be very difficult; however, in other cases, it might just be enhanced by a united approach to make things better and get back to some of the principle governance items we have lost or forgotten. It’s very easy to stray from the common good when individual or self-intended processes get in the way. I suggest there is no better way to improve firefighter safety and public safety than by working together on a united approach that is well respected and committed to a workable structure from the bottom to the top, and vise versa, within Canadian fire and emergency services.

Looking from the outside in at the fire service as a young firefighter, everything seemed wonderful and energizing. Now, looking from the inside out, things have changed personally and professionally, and there are components of discontent. 

How and why does this happen? How can we let ourselves get caught up in this less-than-positive mindset? Who can change this ? We can, as individuals, leaders and organizations.

This change occurs only when leadership steps up to the plate, openly dealing with the known challenges and problems, not in a dictator’s process, but in a healthy, positive leadership structure; communicating, processing and involving the positive team participants.

Change can be very positive experience  when done professionally, respectfully and collectively.

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

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