Fire Fighting in Canada

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Cornerstone: December 2009

I recently returned from the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs’ conference in Winnipeg. The theme of the conference was Passing the Torch and my friend Les Karpluk, fire chief of Prince Albert, Sask., and I spoke about supporting your people.

November 16, 2009 
By Lyle Quan

I recently returned from the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs’ conference in Winnipeg. The theme of the conference was Passing the Torch and my friend Les Karpluk, fire chief of Prince Albert, Sask., and I spoke about supporting your people. In our presentation we talked about having a vision for the future of your department and how coaching your staff is key to give your firefighters and officers the management tools they will require.

To continue on this theme of supporting your people, I’m introducing two books that I believe give you those much-needed tips for presenting new concepts in your department and how to be the coach you want (and need) to be.

The first book, Flipping the Switch – Unleash the Power of Personal Accountability Using the QBQ! by John Miller, addresses a concept the author coins as the “question behind the question”. And what is the question behind the question?; it’s when you continually ask yourself how you can do better. Miller’s book discusses the five fundamental concepts and values that guide our behaviours, which are:

  • Learning;
  • Ownership;
  • Creativity;
  • Service;
  • Trust.

Although these principles may not sound new, it’s how the author explores them and relates them to personal accountability that makes them come alive for readers. His question behind the question delves deeper into each topic, which brings readers back to their personal accountability for themselves and the organizations for which they work.


One key point that I particularly liked is Miller’s reaffirmation that you cannot change the “we” but you can change the “me”. In other words, people will change only if they want to and it’s up to you to give them a reason to change. Miller discusses roadblocks to learning, such as setting unrealistic expectations. There is also the experience trap into which many of us fall. This trap can prevent personal growth because some of us think that after years of experience we cannot learn anymore and become arrogant and overconfident in our thinking.

In his chapter on learning equals change, Miller notes that real learning happens when we turn knowing what to do into doing what we know; actions speak louder than words. If all you are doing is giving lip service to your people, they will bore of it quickly. So, you need to demonstrate that you mean what you say or you stand the chance of losing any momentum you have gained.

Miller’s chapter on service and humility reinforces the concept and value of “servitude leadership”. I have always believed that some of our greatest leaders have been servant leaders; this means that they recognize humility as the cornerstone of leadership. It’s all about having an attitude of “I’m here to help you reach your goals”, as opposed to “I’m in charge and you’re here for me”, or, as one fire chief I worked for noted, “You work for me, I don’t work for you”. Not all who are in leadership roles see serving as part of their jobs but the good leaders do and Miller covers this point quite well.

The second book, Coaching and Mentoring, by Harvard Business Essentials (2004) will help you build on the questions asked in Flipping the Switch by giving you coaching tools. Even if you believe you already have the basic coaching skills you need, this book will help you to fine tune them.

To begin with, let’s look at the difference between coaching and mentoring. The authors note that coaching is an interactive process that aims to solve performance problems or develop employee capabilities whereas the aim of mentoring is to support individual growth through both career and personal development. To put it simply, coaching is the act of teaching those who have the desire but not the skills, which makes it more job- or skill-specific; mentoring, on the other hand, is preparing someone for a career.

The mentor’s job is to help people help themselves. But as the authors note, never forget that those you are coaching or mentoring are responsible for their own success. As a mentor you are there to lend support and advice and, if need be, open doors from time to time.

This book helps you prepare to coach, teaches you how to be a mentor and helps you understand how and when you can use each process and why.

After giving you the basics on coaching and mentoring, the book then takes you to the next level to become an even more effective coach and mentor. This is a great book to have close by to reference as you take on the challenge of coaching or mentoring.

Lyle Quan is a deputy fire chief with the Guelph Fire Department in Ontario. He has a business degree in emergency services from Lakeland College and a degree in education from Brock University. Lyle is a graduate of Dalhousie University’s fire service leadership and administration programs and is an associate instructor for the Ontario Fire College, Lakeland College and Dalhousie University. E-mail:

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