Fire Fighting in Canada

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Communication conundrum

Every person in a position of responsibility needs to have tremendous communication skills and fire chiefs are no different. It is essential for chiefs to communicate in a way that will motivate their firefighters, reassure and inform council members and promote fire prevention to the community.

September 20, 2010 
By Barb and Bill Johnston

Every person in a position of responsibility needs to have tremendous communication skills and fire chiefs are no different. It is essential for chiefs to communicate in a way that will motivate their firefighters, reassure and inform council members and promote fire prevention to the community.



What if you always knew what to say and how to say it so that your message would be clear and well received by others? Maybe you are one of the lucky ones with this inate talent or perhaps you have developed it over time. Most of us, however, need a little help in this area. You say tomato but the listener hears potato. You say your firefighters need updated equipment but the councillor hears higher taxes and unhappy constituents.

Effective communication – through which the listener receives the exact message you intended to send – can be tricky. To consistently have your message heard clearly by your firefighters, the community or council members, you must commit to breaking down the barriers that can distort your message. Knowing when to cut to the chase, when your audience needs time to discuss the issues, or when to send an e-mail rather than meet face to face are examples of skills that differentiate the highly successful fire chief from the less than effective one.

Barriers to great communication are usually unseen and unrealized because most people naturally look at life from their own perspectives. Whenever they see behaviour they don’t understand – the captain who can’t stop talking, the firefighter who criticizes everything, the councillor who always needs to be in control – the natural instinct is to wonder what’s wrong with these people and why can’t they be normal, just like me? 


This lack of understanding of how the natural communication skills of others are different from your own can lead to tension, disappointment, frustration and unmet expectations. Even so, many of these barriers are within your control (as the sender of messages) including the words you choose, your tone of voice, the level of detail you provide and the ability to anticipate the listener’s receptiveness.

You can topple these barriers by understanding how everyone’s personal communication style is affected by their behavioural style and their temperament, or what is more commonly referred to as personality style. 

Think about your firefighters. You can likely already identify these four basic personality styles within your team: 

  • Some individuals enjoy being in charge and making things happen;
  • Other firefighters are part of your team because they really enjoy being around people, talking, telling stories and having fun;
  • Still others are satisfied by simply being part of the team and are willing to help out by taking on a supportive role;
  • And other firefighters are more systematic and predictable in their approach and expect the fire hall to be run in the same manner.

With all these personality styles operating within an environment, whether in the fire hall or the council chamber, it is no surprise that communication is an ongoing challenge. The good news is that patterns of behaviour tend to be predictable – that is, very distinctive and consistent ways of thinking, feeling and acting. This is good news because once you become aware of these particular patterns of behaviour in others, your ability to communicate effectively increases significantly.

Recognizing temperament or personality styles is not a new concept. Twenty-four hundred years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates began to recognize differences in human behaviour that seemed to follow a pattern. Over the centuries, many scientists explored this pattern of behaviour until Dr. William Marston defined it in 1928 in his book, The Emotions of Normal People. Marston theorized that people are motivated by four instinctive drives, and these drives determine behaviours in a pattern that he called D.I.S.C.

  • D is for dominant individuals who are outgoing and task oriented. Their primary motivating factor is to get results and to get them quickly (think of the firefighter who likes to tell others what to do and is always pushing for fast decisions). The key to communicating with this type of personality is to give respect and get to the bottom line as quickly as possible.
  • I is for or influence, to describe individuals who are outgoing and people oriented. Their primary motivating factor in life is to have fun with people (think of the councillor who consistently needs to tell you his latest story or new joke before he can get to the facts). The key to communicating with this personality style is to take time to genuinely interact and be friendly before beginning to deliver your message.
  • S is for steadiness, describing people are reserved and people oriented. Their primary motivating factors are peace and harmony (think of the firefighter who prefers to stay quietly in the background as a supportive team member and avoids conflict at all costs). The key to communicating with this personality type is to use a warm voice tone and show real appreciation for their quiet, consistent support of the team.
  • C is for cautiousness, describing individuals are reserved and task oriented. Their primary motivating factors are perfection and correct information. (Think about the councilor who always has to be right and can’t move forward on a decision until every detail has been checked and rechecked.) The keys to communicating with this personality style are honesty and integrity. Be sure your facts are accurate.

It is important to realize that most people’s personalities cannot be classified under one of these categories. Most individuals are a blend of two, three or even all four of the personality styles that make up D.I.S.C. However, studies have shown that people will demonstrate predominance in one of the four areas. When you can speak directly to their predominant style (whether D., I., S. or C.), there will be significantly fewer hurdles to overcome for improved communication.

Your challenge as a leader is to do something with this knowledge. This takes time and a commitment from you. The first step is to think about your own natural personality style, then observe and identify the styles of those with whom you work and, most importantly, work towards adapting your style to each individual. It may sound difficult but, like any skill, it becomes easier with practice.

You may have gone through an exercise like this with less-than-stellar results. You embrace a new concept and implement it enthusiastically. For the first week it is refreshing because it’s novel. Soon, however, it becomes tedious. You may convince yourself it’s too time consuming to follow through. To make matters worse,  you don’t see the immediate payoff, so you wonder, why continue? There is a payoff, whether it is immediately tangible or not. It comes in the form of increased productivity, reduced conflict at council meetings, improved staff morale at the fire hall and better relationships all around. The key is to make the process continual, and to keep trying.

In November, we will look further into how to communicate more effectively with council when there are so many different personality styles around the table. 

Bill and Barb Johnston own and manage The Centre For Applied Human Dynamics ( They have written two books, Vacation Without Frustration and DISCover Your Communication Style. E-mail them at

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