Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Leadership
Leadership Forum: December 2011

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs conference in Calgary in September was more than just a learning experience; it was also an opportunity to network with our peers to see how things are going in their departments.

December 5, 2011 
By Les Karpluk Lyle Quan

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs conference in Calgary in September was more than just a learning experience; it was also an opportunity to network with our peers to see how things are going in their departments. As we have noted in several of our columns, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between what is happening in Calgary and what is happening in any other part of our country (Toronto, Halifax, Vancouver or St. John’s) – we are all trying to do more with less.

One of the themes for the conference was teamwork and this is what we want to address. In emergency services (as in any organization) we rely on teamwork to get the job done. It’s no secret that ever-increasing pressure is being placed on chief officers to find new ways to provide our services, decrease costs, increase revenue, and maintain harmony and teamwork within the station walls.

We all expend a great deal of energy trying to build up others and demonstrate to them that we are supporting them because they are part of the team. This can drain our energy, and in many cases, it becomes the underlying reason some leaders in the fire service decide to leave the profession. Numerous fire chiefs have spoken to us about the growing sense of entitlement in their departments and how it can affect the team environment. In order for our departments to be able to overcome the what’s-in-it-for-me attitude, we need to build the what’s-in-it-for-us principle – hence, the challenge for chief officers.

People change their attitudes when they see the value in changing them, or when they fear the possible alternatives. As much as the fire service is steeped in tradition with a focus on teamwork, there are reasons teams present a dilemma for some people. First, people can lose a certain level of independence in teams by having to rely on the success of the team itself. There is no room for individuals to claim they did all the work, when, in fact, it was a team effort. Secondly, because individuals are motivated differently, some of our colleagues value looking good over doing good. In other words, some people in the station are not interested in making sacrifices for the success of the team – they are more concerned with being part of the fire service and reaping the social benefits of such status. And lastly, there are those who just have a different work ethic and are not concerned about winning; rather they are more concerned about putting in their time and collecting their paycheque. Variety is the spice of life, and yes, we need people with different views, values and abilities, but in the fire service, we expect all members to pull their own weight.


Understanding the dynamics and challenges of maintaining team harmony is fundamental for the success of today’s fire-service leaders. Teams have highs and lows and it’s unrealistic for any fire-service leader to expect the team to function harmoniously all the time. A close-knit team has often been viewed as the ingredient for team success when, in fact, a close-knit team can be the impetus of a dysfunctional team. Team members who are too close may hesitate to hold another accountable for fear of jeopardizing the relationship and causing dissension among members. If individuals are not held accountable to the department’s standards, it becomes too easy for members to put their own needs and egos ahead of the team’s. The reality is that mature teams led by experienced members can demonstrate respect by holding one another accountable to department standards, thus keeping the team in check and in touch with reality.

Progressive fire-service leaders recognize that teams consist of people with different backgrounds, expectations and needs. An effective team requires trust, open communication, a sense of belonging and accountability. Teams are not built overnight, nor do they recover from setbacks overnight. Patience is key and the what’s-in-it-for-us principle must exist in every fire department across Canada. Ignorance of this principle becomes a root cause for the misguided sense of entitlement, which will eventually destroy team harmony and spirit.

Jin Kwon, a South Korean martial arts master, said, “One piece of log creates a small fire, adequate to warm you up, add just a few more pieces to blast an immense bonfire, large enough to warm up your entire circle of friends; needless to say that individuality counts but team work dynamites.” In other words, we truly are the sum of all our efforts and if those efforts are disjointed because the team isn’t firing on all cylinders, those around us will notice it. But if we work like a well-oiled machine, everyone will feel united and we will become dynamic in what we do.


Les Karpluk is the fire chief of the
Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan.

Lyle Quan is the fire chief of the Waterloo Fire Department in Ontario.

Both are graduates of the Lakeland College Bachelor of Business in

Emergency Services program and Dalhousie University’s Fire
Administration program.

Print this page


Stories continue below