Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum – December 2012

Conversations about leadership often revolve around senior fire department staff and how they encourage colleagues to become part of strong teams or part of the team working on a department project.

November 22, 2012 
By Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan

Conversations about leadership often revolve around senior fire department staff and how they encourage colleagues to become part of strong teams or part of the team working on a department project.

However, we have seen how newly promoted officers are expected to manage, lead and motivate staff with little experience in these areas. One can assume that newly promoted officers are up for the challenge, but if leadership were about giving people good news, the job would be easy. If leadership entailed only managing, leading and motivating staff, most officers would be successful. There are some dangers of leadership and newbie officers need to be aware of these dangers and expect challenges to their authority. Leadership is not just about leading the troops; it’s also about how you can build a strong team with a focus on getting the job done.

For the most part, members of the department know the histories, successes and failures of newly promoted officers. The challenge for new officers is that this change means moving from the known to the unknown; new officers will be tested by other officers to see how they have changed with the promotion.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, there are a few tactics for testing new officers: diversions; overwhelming the new officer with demands; and, in some cases, personal attacks. The fire service has a habit of testing everything and everyone to the max. This type of pressure can be good because it quickly tests the new officer; on the other hand, it doesn’t give the new officer the time to transition to team leader from teammate.


When new officers are expected to bring contentious policies to members, firefighters can consciously divert the leader’s focus to disrupt the policy directives. Let’s say a new officer brings forward a policy on training expectations that is different from the department’s usual policy. One diversion tactic is to put pressure on the new officer to superficially implement the policy, in other words, to do the bare minimum, fudge the records and make the members happy. After all, being accepted by the group is a large part of being a leader.

Another tactic is to bring up a different issue in order to have the officer redirect attention to the demands of the less critical issue. The less critical issue then takes on a life of its own and uses up time and resources. Author Warren Bennis describes this type of diversion as an unconscious conspiracy to get you off your game plan. Stay the course unless you are convinced that you need to refocus your priorities, but refocus only if it’s right for the betterment of the team and the department.

Occasionally, personal attacks are made to draw attention away from the key message or original plan. These attacks can target the character and competence of the new officer through claims that since the promotion, the officer has run around giving orders like a drill sergeant. Personal attacks hurt and can do damage. It’s very important for new officers to stay composed and understand that these types of challenges are growing pains that we have all experienced as we have moved up the ladder.

There are many positives to taking on leadership roles, such as undergoing personal growth and being able to affect change in the department.

On-the-job experience does not guarantee the development of leadership attributes. In fact, in many cases, on-the-job experience can present roadblocks for the person tasked with leading people. Use the experience as a foundation on which to build.

Developing people for officer positions requires a long-range plan and a sincere commitment by those wanting to be leaders. We need strong leaders in our departments today but we also need people in our departments who foster a culture that develops and nurtures leadership. Senior officers need to be mentors who share freely of their experiences and help to guide future leaders. Remember, there was a time when you were in their shoes.

A realistic assessment of leadership gaps in your department and the provision of development opportunities will go a long way to create successful leaders. Creating successful leaders is what senior management is all about, and passing the baton is also part of our culture and success. 

Les Karpluk (top) is the fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. Lyle Quan (bottom) is the fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. Both are graduates of the Lakeland College Bachelor of Business in Emergency Services program and Dalhousie University’s Fire Service Leadership and Administration program.

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