Firelines: November 2016
By Dave Balding
Today’s fire departments face increasing expectations in terms of service delivery, fiscal constraint and improved training standards: the result is greater demands on our members. Firefighters, supervisors, administrators and entire departments have a limited capacity to continually give.
By Dave Balding
Part of the solution to these challenges is for chief officers to become adept at establishing and balancing priorities. Operational effectiveness, accountability to authorities having jurisdiction, fiscal prudence and human-resource management are all critical to our emergency services organizations, however, none of these alone can create an effective fire department.
A prime example of the need to balance priorities is the commitment of volunteer or paid-on-call members to their family lives. These firefighters often must balance family responsibilities with adequate training and response hours. Ways to help may include alternate training nights or days, and providing for children to be brought to the fire hall and minded during emergency events.
As required by the new British Columbia Structure Firefighters Competency and Training Playbook, fire departments across the province are working with their local governments to formally declare the level of fire protection they will provide to their communities. Golden Fire Rescue is fortunate to have the resources to commit to full-service operations; that means not only committing to a level of fire protection, but also the requisite training. This commitment will place an increased demand on our department and its members. We must balance this demand with the training required for other services the department provides, such as: wildland fire suppression, highway rescue, emergency medical responder, confined space and hazardous-materials response.
I find leading and managing our firefighters to be the most vital area in which balance is required; it may also be one of the most challenging. I’m fortunate to work with an amazing team. Getting to know each unique member and using the leadership style best suited for him or her is not always easy. Learning to balance authority with a somewhat more collegial approach is so important. Recruits who have grown up in the 2000s and are unaccustomed to a paramilitary style have shown us we can no longer treat our firefighters like boot-camp participants. Effective leaders also balance their styles across various situations.
Here’s a sticky one – compliance with codes and standards. While I have yet to encounter a department that does not strive to meet the myriad recommendations, standards and codes, I also have yet to find a department that achieves that goal. Some departments with limited means must choose which regulation they may have to flex or vary in order to comply with others. This issue may also speak to a need for balance at a higher level – those bodies that want fire protection and are responsible for funding them.
My colleague and fellow contributor, Tom DeSorcy, recently wrote about change in his Volunteer Vision column. Change is essential to our progression and survival, but we must also maintain balance with change. Innovations such as new tools, strategies and tactics are more critical now than ever; they allow us to ply our trade more effectively and safely. I believe, however, that many practices from our past retain their value. There is still a place for positive-pressure attack and other long-held procedures, while embracing practices such as transitional attack, door control and knowledge of flow paths that have arisen from recent research. The same applies to equipment: smooth-bore nozzles still thrive alongside combination nozzles, as they should.
Equilibrium between long-held traditions and young members of our departments is another aspect essential to the ongoing health of the organizations. Much like teaching the why behind the how in fire fighting, I believe traditions hold little meaning to recruits if we don’t explain their significance and history.
Both operational and social aspects in a department are needed to maintain a balance between effective operations and camaraderie, trust and friendship. Those latter essential elements don’t come from a training manual; they come from social events with the members and their families. Beware the departments (and they are often reflective of their leaders) that allow one side of this operational-versus-social equation to overly influence the other.
Balance, perhaps underrated, may be a more essential ingredient than we know. A chief officer’s ability to balance is often taken for granted, yet its absence is very noticeable.
Dave Balding joined the fire service in 1985 and is now fire chief in Golden, B.C. Contact Dave at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @FireChiefDaveB