Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum: May 2010

In our March column we talked about reframing your organization’s future through hiring the right people and then supporting them.

April 26, 2010 
By Lyle Quan Les Karpluk

In our March column we talked about reframing your organization’s future through hiring the right people and then supporting them.  We also talked about coaching and counselling your people to help them be the best they can be. Does this mean that once you have the right people in the right places the rest is easy? Actually, the real work has just begun because organizational culture and its ideologies impact your staff from the day they walk through the door until the day they leave. Let’s talk more about creating a positive culture.

Culture is defined as shared and inter-related sets of emotionally charged beliefs, values and norms that bind people together and help them make sense of their world. There is an old saying: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for life. In other words, it’s not enough to give our people the basic tools and related expectations. We have to help them understand how these learning and coaching tools were developed and how they can take full advantage of them to further their careers. 

Creating and promoting a positive culture needs to be supported through actions and constructive reinforcement. It’s not good enough to use phrases like “lead by example” or “walk the talk”. This  kind of talk can sometimes create a culture in which your people watch out for what everyone else is doing, and if they aren’t doing the right things at the right time, then this leads to other staff telling on those who aren’t leading by example or walking the talk; this is definitely not what we want. In order to develop our people and our departments we need to get staff excited about the benefits of creating a culture that promotes excellence and lifelong learning. We, as chief officers, must live this stuff every day; if we want to promote (and eventually realize) a culture  of excellence and personal growth we need to demonstrate this through our own actions.

 Too often we hear from fire chiefs who are frustrated and confused about their personnel issues. They have tried to hire the right people, provided the tools required to do their jobs and implemented a support system of coaching and mentoring, yet problems continue to exist. So, what’s the issue? It could be that organizational culture is a multi-faceted entity that is bigger than any one person in the group. In reality, culture has little to do with facts and everything to do with the collective and individual perceptions of an organization’s members. For example, we often see the eagerness of new firefighters decline with time; sometimes those firefighters fall into the status quo trap and it becomes too easy to go with the flow. We need to put aside the tendency to find a rationale that explains and/or supports this complacency and, instead, accept the fact that  our departments are social entities and their intricacies are unique, and then move on. By working with your people, you gain the ability to identify the issues and, as a team, look at what needs to be implemented in order to go from complacency to fulfilment.


Culture cannot be changed overnight. It sets the tone for the department. If you are part of or have inherited a department that has a negative culture you need to drill down and find out why this culture exists, how long it has been part of the department and what belief system fosters this counterproductive philosophy. If the past fire chief created the negative culture then your path is clear: you need to be the broom that sweeps clean the negative climate and the leader who injects the positive beliefs. It doesn’t matter who or what created this negative environment; understand that it will not change overnight. What has possibly taken years to create will certainly take years or even a generation to change into something with a degree of orderliness and strong organizational values. The point is that you, as a chief officer, cannot let down your guard or let your commitment to your people and the department falter.

If your department is on a solid foundation and appears to be going in the right direction, you still can’t let your guard down. Your people expect you to take them to a higher plane by examining and reinventing what you do and how you do it. Challenge them, listen to them and give them the authority to improve their department. The more they become involved in the future of the department the greater their feeling of ownership and pride. 

As is the trend in our columns, we are issuing a challenge to you to be the champion of change – the catalyst who makes the difference. We have no doubt that you will be pleasantly surprised with the level of support you receive from your people and how quickly the tide turns, as long as you are committed to understanding the dynamics of organizational culture and the change process.

les lyle
 Les Karpluk

 Lyle Quan

Les Karpluk is the fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan.
Lyle Quan is a deputy chief with the Guelph Fire Department in
Ontario. Both are graduates of the Lakeland College Bachelor of
Business in Emergency Services and Dalhousie University’s fire
administration program.

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