The fire service, I have come to realize through the good fortune of my engagement and involvement with fire departments across Canada, is diverse yet consistent and invariably challenging. I recently assumed the role of fire chief for the Town of Nipawin, Sask. This exciting new position entailed a move from my home province of some 27 years to a place with, I’m learning, both differences and similarities. In this agricultural region there are risks I have not yet seen such as grain entrapment and colder temperatures than I may be accustomed to. Not surprisingly, much of our modus operandi (way of doing business) is similar to models I’m familiar with. Of course, there are the typical local, regional and provincial elements I must familiarize myself with, a process already well underway.
There are a great many lessons here for me as I learn about my new home, the department, the community and region. In previous columns I have written about the need for leaders to be humble; it’s a vital quality that I feel is even more essential for this neophyte. I’m so very fortunate to be joining a department with and excellent reputation and quite a few members with considerable tenure. I have much to learn and I’m the first to see this. Learning is another positive aspect of effective leaders I have written of. Training and courses are one facet of learning we must remain engaged in as is paying attention to those around us and simply observing. I’m already reaping dividends as I learn about the department – it’s history, the members, significant calls, the political climate and more. These pieces all fit together like a puzzle to impart a flavour of the department in operational and softer yet vital aspects.
There’s nothing like removing one’s self from the status quo, the familiar, to grow versatility. Surroundings and situations we become accustomed to become comfortable. No matter what your role in the fire service, continue to challenge yourself, to push yourself even if it means getting out of that comfort zone. Flexibility in our characters and our intellectual capacity much like physical flexibility diminishes with lack of use. Our default condition is to stay comfortable, not to bend. Flex and bend, I say.
Another trait that strong and effective leaders possess is that of vision. Each one of us imprints our department in our own unique way and the extent to which we do so is a balance. I’m fortunate here in Nipawin to be engaged with an ambitious and dedicated department that is a fit for my philosophies. The matter of fitting in and meshing with a new department is not entirely measurable yet so very critical. As the first fire chief to serve this department coming from another jurisdiction, I’m keenly aware that I’m being watched and measured by those I lead. It’s important to bear in mind the obverse is also true; as an officer in any department we develop bonds with our subordinates and colleagues. Always remember the new recruit in their early days with your organization as they settle into the best profession in the world, be it career or volunteer. I have redoubled my commitment to always make them feel welcome and safe as I have been welcomed here.
Forging and enriching relationships is not only an essential part of what we do in the fire service, it is in my view one of the most affirming. Whether by default or intent we build and grow relationships on several levels in our professional environment. I’m reminded in my new setting of the importance and thrill of getting to know the members I work and respond with.
I reflect on the sense of community here – not only of the brother and sisterhood that is the fire service, but of the communities in which our departments serve. When out and about in uniform or not, I have been stopped and welcomed to town. Ensuing conversation invariably revolves around the fire department. These experiences are reminders to me that we are always individually and collectively on display, ambassadors for the fire service. This is especially true in the environments I treasure: smaller communities across our country.
With this change come myriad challenges – and blessings for me. Among them is the opportunity to appreciate the gift of belonging to the fire service, leading and learning from a fresh new perspective. Is effective fire service leadership any more important for a newcomer? I’d say not, we must always be our best for those we lead, our organizations and the people we are in this to help. The key, as it is for every one of us no matter how much tenure we may have in our position, is to keep that inspiration and drive fresh and top of mind.
Dave Balding joined the fire service in 1985 and is the fire chief with the Nipawin Fire Department in Saskatchewan. Contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @FireChiefDaveB.
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