Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum: November 2012

In a well-known movie that is based on a comic book, which is based on Greek mythology, Morpheus offers a blue pill and a red pill to the movie’s main character, Neo.

November 1, 2012 
By Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan

In a well-known movie that is based on a comic book, which is based on Greek mythology, Morpheus offers a blue pill and a red pill to the movie’s main character, Neo. If Neo takes the blue pill he remains in the matrix, but if he takes the red pill he can escape the matrix and enter reality. OK, this example is a slight variation on the movie, but the analogy is a good topic for this column.

Blue-pill theory
The fire service enjoys a rich history and culture that is shaped by symbols, perceptions, values, assumptions and beliefs. Many myths are present in our organizational culture and, as such, many of us have been socialized to believe in and accept these myths over the years. Often these myths are so deeply embedded in our psyche that we feel uncomfortable when they are challenged or questioned.

For example, years ago, the conflict between career and volunteer firefighters was clearly evident. The myth was that volunteer fire departments just didn’t have the same level of training or competence as the career guys. By taking the blue pill and remaining in the matrix (the myth), the rift continues to exist between a career department and a volunteer department serving a neighbouring community. Obviously, the blue-pill theory keeps that antiquated mindset alive and creates roadblocks to effective partnerships and mutual-aid agreements with other departments. In effect, the blue pill keeps people locked to a mindset that is counterproductive to the growth of firefighters and to the profession.

Another myth is that the community cannot do without the career fire department. Too many of our career people have had a stash of blue pills on hand and have not looked around at other communities that are either making drastic reductions in staffing or changing to composite services from full-time departments. The reality is that many private organizations are vying to take on the coveted territory that has been solely assigned to career fire departments.


Red-pill theory
In the red-pill theory, true leaders exist and understand that the positive attitudes they have about themselves, their organizations and the communities they serve are paramount to ensuring that the right things are done. The authentic leaders in the fire station (no matter what their rank) are those who maintain realistic and optimistic attitudes. These leaders recognize and acknowledge that a concerted effort is required to improve the organization’s attitude. Having a positive attitude is the key ingredient to leadership and teamwork, and, as such, a lesson from Morpheus is needed here.

Morpheus believed that Neo was the one to free people from the matrix. One can surmise that Morpheus was well versed in the Pygmalion effect and appreciative of the fact that a teacher’s (Morpheus’) expectations influence a student’s (Neo’s) behaviour. The research of Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson demonstrated that positive expectations will influence individual performance positively, and negative expectations will influence individual performance negatively. In other words, the Pygmalion effect is a self-fulfilling prophecy: people (firefighters) perform based upon the expectations placed on them.

The authentic leaders (red-pill believers) in our profession realize that there are no benefits to negative, pessimistic or what’s-in-it-for-me attitudes. When the fire-service leader takes the red pill he or she has little or no tolerance for the negative attitudes that create such things as the career-verses-volunteer divide or the they-can’t-do-without-us bravado. Even when faced with opposition and conflict, authentic leaders cultivate positive thoughts because there is evidence that, when an individual thinks positively, the body, mind and spirit respond accordingly. In addition, the red-pill believers focus on individual and organizational success stories, learn from their mistakes, bounce back from disappointment and bruised feelings, and move forward.

There are those who say The Matrix was more than a movie because it challenged and put a spin on reality. Maybe in some profound way, when entering the profession, we subconsciously subscribed to the blue-pill theory. However, as time passed and we grew older and wiser, we realized that only the red-pill theory can change our profession and move it forward.

Expanding upon Morpheus’ words of wisdom, we leave you with a quote from The Matrix: “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”


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.

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