Fire Lines: February 2019

You’re the new chief, but now what?
February 01, 2019
Written by Dave Balding
As a brand new chief officer thrust into the role by, in my view, an outmoded right of passage that many of us know as annual elections, I was, to say the least, more than a little bewildered.

I thought of myself as a competent firefighter with a strong mechanical background and there I was – an administrator. I was fortunate to enjoy mentorship from my revered predecessors, sage advice, voices of experience, with liberal doses of opinions. These ran the gamut from views on the irreverent new firefighters to the increasing regulatory demands.  

Where would I go from here? How would I find my way, let alone develop and portray vison to my new followers only recently plucked from their ranks?

Vision, although shorter term initially, evolves and matures. We develop a view where we believe our organization may be in the future which becomes, in some respects, the brand that we leave on the department. That vision, however, must not be altogether singularly held. I hold that there is a balance to be maintained between being the leader that we believe the department needs and the leader the members need and desire.

As a new leader wrestling with the day-to-day challenges of heading up a small rural fire department, the longer-term goals occasionally faded in favour of day-to-day demands. Yet, I knew they remained essential.

Over time, with ongoing mentorship from those that helped to forge the way before me, along with those I was learning to lead, my leadership style gradually evolved. I learned the importance of resiliency, a key leadership quality. Setbacks are common for any of us – more so if we venture outside that area of comfort as bold leaders do.

Each one is also a learning opportunity. I believe optimism works hand in hand with resiliency and is a key ingredient for any vibrant leader. I, like each one of us, am a function of myriad factors in my upbringing and life experiences. It became clear that leading is about much more than standard operating guidelines, policies and regulations.

Make no mistake, today, more than ever before, these resources are so necessary to guide us in the way we do business as fire departments.

I eventually saw how true leadership is about much more. It’s about the people we are so fortunate to work alongside and building relationships with them.

Communication is a passion of mine and spending time with members, getting to genuinely know them, actively listening to them is a vital opportunity not to be missed.

That brings the notion of being a leader, potentially conflicting with having subordinates as friends to mind. I once saw a graphic suggesting it was indeed viable, provided a leader has their subordinates’ respect. That said, I have learned in my leadership journey that we no longer have the privilege of being a part of the rank and file. I’m not suggesting elitism here, rather objectivity, fairness and impartiality.

Perhaps the obverse of this is a strong belief I own that no one – no matter the colour of their shirt or helmet – is above pitching in, rolling hose or washing trucks.

My leadership journey has also shown me the value of formal education, books, online courses and face-to-face training. Progressive leaders are voracious learners. I’m fortunate to have an employer committed to ongoing professional development for us.

Who wins in that equation? I would subscribe the public we serve, our colleagues and our communities all benefit. I soon came to appreciate the value of doing the same for our firefighters.

The empowerment and growth that training brings is unparalleled. Whether it’s training, knowledge, time or praise – I mean genuine praise – give it away. It not only feels great and is the right thing to do, your members and organization will thrive on it.

Another lesson, possibly the most poignant and powerful I’ve learned through my leadership journey, is the incredible support that exists in the fire service. I do not take this lightly. I certainly have foisted more than my share of personal challenges on my colleagues and subordinates.

Leaders make mistakes too. This one is certainly no exception. Please learn from them, and also learn to forgive, when appropriate.

I’m still learning, I’m happy to say.


Dave Balding joined the fire service in 1985 and is now fire chief in Golden, B.C. Contact Dave at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @FireChiefDaveB.

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