Fire Fighting in Canada

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Cornerstone: November 2011

While getting ready for my new position with Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario, I received a timely bit of advice from a friend who recommended that I read a couple of books to help with my transition.

November 14, 2011 
By Lyle Quan

While getting ready for my new position with Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario, I received a timely bit of advice from a friend who recommended that I read a couple of books to help with my transition. I got so much out of these books that I want to share the lessons learned with you. Both books are geared to help you gain control when taking on a new job or a new promotion and also to understand what to worry about and what not to worry about. The First 90 Days, written by Michael Watkins (2003), definitely helped me adjust to my new role as the fire chief for Waterloo Fire Rescue. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, by Richard Carlson (1997), helped me put things into perspective by learning how to relax.

There is a well-known axiom that the president of the United States is judged by the first 100 days in office. Watkins’ book suggests that you really have only 90 days to make the impression that you want. Believe me, no matter how prepared you think you are, there is much to learn. After years of being a deputy chief with a similarly sized department and the fire chief of a volunteer fire department, I thought I had all the angles covered, but I found the learning curve to be quite steep in my new position. The information in Watkins’ book helped to make the transition a lot less complicated.

Some of the helpful hints found in this book relate to the challenges that you could face as someone who was hired from outside of the organization (as opposed to being someone who was promoted from within). In fact, as noted in the book, those coming to a new organization have a higher rate of failure because of such factors as:

  • Not being familiar with the organizational structure and the informal networks;
  • Not being familiar with the corporate culture;
  • As a new arrival to the organization, people don’t know you, so you have to build your credibility;
  • If the organization has a tradition of hiring from within, then as a new hire (from outside of the organization), there may be resentment and an adjustment period.

To help you overcome some of these obstacles, Watkins’ book provides in-depth advice to aid you in developing a road map for your 90-day plan. The chapters address the following key issues:

  1.  Promote yourself. Make the mental break from your old job and prepare to take charge in the new one.
  2.     Accelerate your learning. As the new boss, you need to climb that learning curve as quickly as you can in your new organization.
  3.     Match strategy to situation. You need to diagnose the situation(s) accurately and clarify challenges and opportunities.
  4.     Secure early wins. Within the first few weeks you need to identify opportunities to build personal credibility.
  5.     Negotiate success. Learn how to build a productive environment with your new team.
  6.     Achieve alignment. How will you develop the systems and skill bases necessary to realize your strategic intent?
  7.     Build your team. Are you inheriting a team or will you have to build your own?
  8.     Create coalitions. Identify those who support you right away.
  9.     Keep your balance. The right advice and counsel network is an indispensable resource.
  10.     Expedite everyone. You need to help everyone in your organization.

As noted by the author, this book is based on a proactive approach; it doesn’t subscribe to the concept that a new leader should be left to sink or swim.

The second book, which I believe to be a companion to the first, is Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.

After you have learned about charting your 90-day path to success in your new job, the next step is learning not to sweat the small stuff. This book is a great tool for helping you to understand this simple but effective concept.

Carlson’s book will definitely help you to put things into perspective by teaching you how to look at your problems as challenges and learning opportunities. The numerous suggestions in this book helped me to remember that we can do only one thing at a time, and that we need to let others take control of things once in a while. Trust in others and let them have the opportunity to do what is right.

The points the author provides seem almost too simplistic, but for me they were a wake-up call and a reminder that listening to gut feelings and the recommendations of others is a giant step toward building teams, learning how to relax and not agonizing over everything that comes your way.

This book by Carlson is one that you will want to keep close by as a constant reference and a positive reminder of how to keep things in perspective.

Lyle Quan is the fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. He has a business degree in emergency services and a degree in adult education. Lyle is an associate instructor for the Ontario Fire College, Lakeland College and Dalhousie University. E-mail Lyle at

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