Fire Fighting in Canada

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Embracing, and selling, change

Dec. 16, 2008 - In April I will have the pleasure of speaking at the Saskatchewan Association of Fire Chiefs (SAFC) conference on the topic of change management and leadership. With this in mind, my creative juices are flowing and I thought it would be appropriate to share some thoughts on this topic.

December 16, 2008 
By Lyle Quan

I have been the recipient of change and even the champion of change. Both offer a unique perspective for evaluating what went right and how we can improve. During all these experiences I have realized that for the most part, people are not afraid of change; it’s how the change is presented that makes the difference. The fire service, like any other organization that is proud of its heritage, is sometimes seen as being somewhat hesitant about embracing change. There is nothing wrong with researching and evaluating any suggested changes. However, we must not allow ourselves to fall into that if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it mindset, because by the time we realize that it’s broken, we have lost the opportunity to change direction on our terms.

The SAFC has recognized that playing catch up is not the position it wants to be in. Its 2009 conference (being hosted by Prince Albert) is a good example of this commitment to its future. The conference’s theme is Changing Your Culture. Saskatchewan’s fire chiefs realize that they can no longer depend on the fire service’s tradition to be our only guiding light. Certainly we should be proud of that foundation but we also need to build on it. The new fire service leaders needs to embrace change and become the catalyst for change in their departments. Don’t misunderstand me – I am not promoting change simply for change itself; that would accomplish nothing. As managers and leaders, we need to look outside the box and find better ways to deliver our services and train and prepare our staff to meet the future needs of our industry and the communities we serve.

So why do some change initiatives fail while others are resounding successes? I believe it’s in the leadership of the organization. Many of us have been through change initiatives in our workplaces. Look back on how we felt about these initiatives. Were we excited and ready to go or did we feel apprehensive and lukewarm about what the future would hold? Why?
People I have interviewed on this topic have questioned why staff should embrace change if the leaders of the organization didn’t demonstrate a true enthusiasm toward the initiative. I’ve heard comments like “If the chief wasn’t willing to walk the talk, then why should I?” As present and future fire service leaders, we must never forget that we are being evaluated every day. We need to share our visions and live them until they become reality for everyone – let everyone know the benefits of change and what it will mean to each individual on a personal level.

Two books that I believe will help you with efforts to promote change are Our Iceberg is Melting, by John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber (2005), and The Present, by Spencer Johnson (2003). Each book will give you a different perspective on dealing with change.


Our Iceberg is Melting is a simple story about a group of penguins that refuse to accept the fact that their iceberg is melting and they will have to move. Within this easy-to-read story the authors show the reader how eight easy steps can produce the needed change in any type of group. The eight steps are:
1. Create a sense of change;
2. Put a carefully selected group in charge of guiding the change;
3. Present a sensible vision of a better future;
4. Communicate the vision so other will accept and understand it;
5. Remove as many obstacles as possible;
6. Create some sort of success quickly;
7. Never let up until the change is firmly established;
8. Ensure that the changes are not overcome by stubborn, hard to die traditions.

In The Present, Spencer tells of an individual who is disillusioned with his life and searches for this elusive present. In the end, with the help of an old man, the young man discovers that there are three parts to this present which are:
1. To be in the present to focus on what is important now;
2. Learn from the past. Do things differently in the present;
3. Plan for the future, and put your plan into action (in the present).

Both books will help you to identify what you may be doing wrong and how to learn from your past. They will also help you to implement change in your organization. Although these two books will be of great value to you, remember that it is you and your team that need to put your plan into action, promote it and support it.

Both books 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.

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