Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Leadership
Cornerstone: May 2009

Recently, a fire chief with a neighbouring department asked if I could help to implement some necessary changes. He felt that having someone from the outside at the table would help get his officers energized.

April 22, 2009
By Lyle Quan


Recently, a fire chief with a neighbouring department asked if I could help to implement some necessary changes. He felt that having someone from the outside at the table would help get his officers energized.

I was somewhat surprised by this request because the department has a good fire chief, and from all appearances, the department seems to be well run. However, after sitting in on a meeting to evaluate the main concerns and the goals, I realized why the department was failing to move ahead. The chief, in trying to chair the meeting, became more of a dictator than a facilitator. He barked out his vision of the department and doled out assignments and completion dates, which in itself is good. But he forgot to give meaning to these tasks and solicit input from his people.

What happened here? Well, to begin with, he failed to create a team environment that would generate a collaborative effort to get the work done and he failed to associate a true sense of urgency with this change initiative. Without a sense of urgency, the officers did not fully commit to
supporting the chief’s vision and expectations.

After the meeting, I sat with the chief and pointed out that although his goals were well intended, the presentation failed to meet the needs of his officers. I suggested several actions, including reading a book by Travis Bradberry titled Squawk. Squawk is an easy read that focuses on a problem I see all too often. It is about a leader who feels that by flying in, squawking out orders without any true meaning, and then flying away, he has  his role as a leader.


How many times have you worked for a boss who never seems to be around, but when he does show up, comes in, spouts off several orders relating to what he wants done without filling in the blanks, and then flies off, not to be seen again (for several days). Perhaps Bradberry’s book can help.

Bradberry’s book focuses on the three main virtues of supportive and communicative leadership, which are:

  • Fully identifying your expectations; 
  • Openly communicating with your staff;
  • And hands-on performance.

As Bradberry notes, leaders must reveal exactly what needs to be done before they can expect to see it happen.

A leader needs to ensure that the efforts of the staff are being spent on the right things in the right way. As for open communication, leaders must interact with staff to ensure that the required resources and guidance are offered. And remember, communication goes both ways; leaders need to listen before they can understand the needs of the staff. Finally, leaders need to pay attention to what is being done and praise their people when things are done right. Or, at the very least, offer some constructive criticism instead of negatively attacking individuals.

As for instilling a sense of urgency, there is an audiobook by John Kotter, aptly called A Sense of Urgency that is well worth listening to. (It is also available in hardcover and paperback.) Kotter notes that if you fail to instil this sense of urgency in your staff then your project is almost sure to fail. Creating this sense of urgency is as simple as creating a level of excitement in your staff to deal with the task at hand. Remember when you were in school and participated in any team effort; for example, if you played sports and had a coach who was excited about the game, then that excitement seemed to naturally transfer to you. How did you feel? What about the coach or leader who was less than thrilled about the program he/she was directing? How did you feel then, did you really care about the outcome of the game?

Leadership is more than just barking out orders; it’s about working with your people so they feel they are engaged and contributing members of the team. It is also about creating a sense of urgency to get a project completed. Kotter gives you the tools you need to instil this sense of urgency in your staff.

Don’t become that leader who forgot what it was like to be a contributing member of the team. Communicate with your people: let them know what your vision is and why a project needs to be completed.

As for the fire chief I was working with, he took my advice, and after a few more one-on-one meetings, is well on his way to creating an environment that is more communicative and successfully implements any changes that are required.

Both of the books mentioned above can be obtained through Amazon and Chapters.

Lyle Quan is the deputy fire chief – administration with the Guelph Fire Department in Ontario. A 27-year veteran of emergency services, he is a graduate of Lakeland College’s bachelor of applied business: emergency services and Dalhousie University’s fire service leadership and administration programs. Lyle is an associate instructor for the Ontario Fire College, Lakeland College and Dalhousie University. E-mail: 

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