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Our columns for 2012 will focus on how to survive the chaos in today’s fire service. We define chaos as unpredictability in the behaviour of a complex profession that can lead to confusion among employees.

March 19, 2012
By Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan

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Our columns for 2012 will focus on how to survive the chaos in today’s fire service. We define chaos as unpredictability in the behaviour of a complex profession that can lead to confusion among employees.

Leadership is challenging at the best of times and can often be overwhelming. The pace of change in the fire service and the expectations of the communities we serve require firefighters and chief officers to be as nimble as possible in adapting to the challenges they may face.

During organizational uncertainty, staff look to the leadership team to see them through the adversity. Trials and tribulations such as budget reductions, political interference and low department morale can impact the administrative side. Personnel issues such as post-traumatic stress disorders, marriage breakups and changes to staff can cause (or add to) chaos in the department.

Chief officers and firefighters tell us that the work landscape has changed. Perhaps a more notable observation is the sense of entitlement that has permeated the workforce: many fire-service personnel we’ve spoken to say this sense of entitlement is real and needs to be jointly addressed; others view the presumption by senior officers of a sense of entitlement among younger firefighters as condescending, thinking the focus and priorities of the new generation of firefighters are misunderstood by the veterans. Regardless of your personal view, any member of the fire service can attest to the change in the workforce expectations from our staff and our community leaders.

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Our community leaders expect more for less – not only from the fire department, but also from all departments operated by the town or city. This external challenge can exacerbate our efforts to engage our staff because we have fewer financial resources to invest into what may be seen as a non-essential program of team building and staff development. Karen Ellis, a U.K.-based consultant and coach, noted in a 2010 piece called “Grace Under Fire” in www.trainingjournal.com, that historically, workers have entered into psychological contracts with employers, under which employees held a long-term sense of devotion and dedication to the organization. Today, the short-term agreement is more prevalent, in which there is less of a commitment and reduced loyalty to the organization. In fact, Ellis says employees will stay with an organization only if they feel there is meaningful work that is fulfilling and develops work competencies. Some of our new firefighters fail to respond to, and/or will resist, the command-and-control leadership style that has be ingrained in our profession for more than 100 years. This can be attributed to the fact that the new firefighters may believe that the command-and-control paramilitary style has only one place in our profession, and that is during emergency incidents. Without understanding this new landscape of generational differences, many in the profession have found themselves in unpredictable positions, or even in a state of confusion, regarding the expectations of the various generations in our workplaces.

Today’s fire-service leaders must understand this fact and remain resilient during turbulent times. Open communication and information sharing are critical and go a long way to foster trust in the organization, whereas the paramilitary style can prevent the open sharing of information and can essentially shut down the informal lines of communication. Without the existence of informal lines of communication, employees may be cautious of new department endeavours and even view creditable projects with suspicion.

Resilience is mandatory for any fire-service leader. Keeping focused in difficult situations is what separates the mature leader from the rest of the organization. At times, the paramilitary command-and-control leadership style may work (for example, in emergency incidents); however, it is rigid and lacks emotional connection, so use it sparingly and only when required. A catch-22 exists where the leadership of the department attempts to balance the command-and-control method with a team-based decision-making model.

Adversity in the fire profession is the norm. Few members in the fire service can argue against the fact that we need to deal with the ups and downs in the profession in a timely manner. What is important is the ability to bounce back from those events. The ability to cope and be flexible during times of chaos will separate the strong leaders from the weak.

Gen. George S. Patton, a United States army officer in the Second World War, said, “I don’t measure a man’s success by how high he climbs but how high he bounces when he hits bottom.” Look at those times of chaos as an opportunity to learn and grow. Remember, no matter how hard we try, everyone fails once in a while. How you learn and how you bounce back from those incidents is what demonstrates what type of leader you are.

People are our strength and, as leaders, the more we work at building trust and understanding within our team, the easier it is to deal with those chaotic events.


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