Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum: September 2010

We have written about reframing your future and creating a positive culture in your department. In this first column of a three-part series, we will discuss how all members are responsible for the growth or decay of the department.

September 20, 2010 
By Les Karpluk Lyle Quan

We have written about reframing your future and creating a positive culture in your department. In this first column of a three-part series, we will discuss how all members are responsible for the growth or decay of the department.

You may have noticed a recurring theme in our columns – that the responsibility of leading the changes, growth and culture of the department rests with the chief and the leaders. Without the chief leading, the department will struggle to make progressive steps into the future. This is not to say that the support of your front-line staff isn’t crucial. Therefore, we want to expand on the responsibility placed on every member of a department to work toward reframing attitudes.

We are advocates of the win-win philosophy and how it creates positive work cultures and growth. A win-win philosophy is based on productive and positive working relationships and cannot exist without positive working relationships. You can’t see, hear, smell or taste a relationship but you can feel it. You know if the relationship feels right or wrong and you can sense when the other party isn’t being honest in the development of the relationship. Whether we like it or not, (good and bad) relationships exist in our workplaces and the functionality of the department depends on the effectiveness of these relationships.

Everyone is different; the sooner we come to terms with this the better our departments will be. We interpret others based on our own prejudices, personalities, backgrounds, likes and dislikes. People interpret each other differently and the interpretation of the other person is the personality of that person. Good relationships do not always come naturally; they must be built, and this takes work.


Two kinds of relationships exist in a fire department; vertical relationships between firefighters and supervising officers and horizontal relationships among firefighters. A supervising officer has a unique vertical relationship with subordinates and a second vertical relationship with the superior officer. An influential vertical relationship exists where trust and communication flow bi-directionally, creating a culture in which members can exchange ideas, voice complaints and offer suggestions. A significant responsibility is placed on the company officer to foster and develop that vertical relationship with subordinates and superiors. A healthy vertical relationship requires work and must be exercised so it can weather the difficult times. Exchanging ideas and communicating bi-directionally strengthens the vertical relationship and helps to build a positive culture.

Each firefighter is responsible for developing horizontal relationships with other firefighters and cannot ignore the importance of these relationships. Unfortunately, some firefighters overcompensate on their horizontal relationships and become one of the gang, to be accepted. Becoming one of the gang has positives and negatives. The positive side is that the firefighter becomes more a part of the team or family, and that is a great team building relationship. However, there can be peer pressure to go with the flow. When firefighters feel that they cannot voice their opinions because they may damage the working relationships with their counterparts, then those individuals feel the effects of peer pressure, which can have a counterproductive influence.

Peer relationships are crucial to the department’s culture. Three types of peer relationships were identified by Kathy Kram and Lynn Isabella in a 1985 article called Mentoring alternatives: The role of peer relationships in career development, in the Academy of Management Journal. They are the information peer, the collegial peer and the special peer in organizational relationships.

The information peer provides a friendly exchange of information about the department, shift, personnel and work. This relationship is superficial and has a low level of trust with few demands. The collegial peer relationship involves more trust and more self-disclosure. In this relationship, there is an opportunity for direct and honest feedback. The special peer relationship has the qualities of a best-friend relationship with a strong bond. Peer relationships in any department have a significant impact on the culture.

As mentioned, good relationships require significant effort. Understanding the intricacies of working relationships is one step toward improving vertical and horizontal relationships. The challenge is that all members must value and strive for positive relations rather than following the easy route of complaining.

Is your relationship vertical or horizontal? Is it open, honest and beneficial to you and your peers? Are you exerting peer pressure on your colleagues or are you trying to do the right thing for yourself and your department?

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