Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum: November 2010

In September we identified the role of vertical and horizontal relationships and how these relationships impact your department. Noted author Stephen Covey states, “The most important ingredient we put into any relationship is not what we say or what we do, but what we are.

November 1, 2010
By Les Karpluk Lyle Quan

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In September we identified the role of vertical and horizontal relationships and how these relationships impact your department. Noted author Stephen Covey states, “The most important ingredient we put into any relationship is not what we say or what we do, but what we are.” Recognizing that effective human relations are critical to productivity in a fire station and key ingredients for career success, we will examine why firefighters and chief officers must understand their importance.

According to Elwood Chapman in his 1997 book Your Attitude is Showing: A Primer on Human Relations, human relations is knowing how to handle difficult problems, learning to work well with others, dealing with conflict effectively, understanding how you communicate with others, restoring damaged relationships and maintaining healthy relationships with co-workers. At first glance, it appears that getting along with others is the essence of human relations. However, human relations are more complex than that; your career success depends on understanding all that human relations encompass.

Working relationships exist among all employees in the fire department. Human relations involves building and maintaining relationships horizontally and vertically in good and poor working conditions. Building strong and effective relationships contributes to the interpersonal influence attributed to successful fire-service leaders. Interpersonal influence stresses the so-called we component of a relationship, which builds trust and strengthens the team’s foundation. There are times when this we component is challenged, for instance, when conflict occurs between two or more members. It is easy for members to nurture the hurt caused by the conflict and to create a toxic working environment, which directly impacts human relations in the department through a spill-over effect. In other words, the negative aspect affects how you deal with others and how they may deal with you. There is no doubt that at some time in your career you have steered clear of someone at work because you didn’t want to deal with the attitude you were seeing and/or feeling. So, never assume that what you do and how you are doing it is not seen and felt by others around you. The leaders in the department must understand and appreciate that effective human relations are critical for department success. As such, we need to strive to resolve those strained relationships.

Another issue to recognize when dealing with good or bad relationships is the lasting effect they can have on an organization. To use an analogy, just because a skunk has left the building doesn’t mean the effects of its visit won’t linger. As the leader, you need to do whatever damage control is required to eradicate the situation. In the world of relationships, the toxic environment that was created needs to be dealt with and this can take time. Patience and consistent support is crucial to building positive relationships.

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Remember, it took time for most of these negative relationships to develop and they will not disappear overnight. This is why it is critical that fire-service leaders fully understand vertical and horizontal relationships. If the fire chief is the only individual working to eradicate the skunk smell in the department then the smell will linger for a long time.

Human relations requires that two parties realize and understand the importance of eradicating a negative situation. We used the skunk analogy for a reason: When effective human relations are lacking in a department, it stinks. The department cannot function at a basic level of productivity because sooner or later morale will end up in the sewer. When morale is low, firefighters look to the chief for positive change but let’s not forget that (as we have noted in many of our columns) this is a team concern, and a team effort is required to get things back on track.

It’s only when we, as chief officers, take full responsibility for what is happening that things will change. Don’t be a finger pointer or lay the blame on others. It’s true that you may not have been the cause of the toxic situation but you can be the catalyst for positive change.

We believe that leadership exists at all levels – it’s not the amount of gold on your shoulder that makes you a leader, it’s how you walk the talk. It can be easy to go with the flow; instead, try to identify what is right and follow that path. The right path may not be the easiest path to take, but if you follow it, you will be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

One final thought: Think back to when you started in the fire service – who did you look up to and want to emulate? Was it the class clown who was always trying to be the centre of attention or was it the firefighter, captain or chief officer who did what needed to be done, not for the attention, but because it was the right thing?

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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