Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum: August 2011

There are times in people’s careers when they wonder if they are making a difference in their professions.

August 4, 2011 
By Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan

There are times in people’s careers when they wonder if they are making a difference in their professions. Excellent speakers such as those heard at a recent leadership conference in Toronto remind us we all encounter the same self-doubt. These presenters touched on many of the concepts that we have been writing about. This was refreshing and reassuring, as it confirmed to us that many of us share the same vision and focus – to make the fire service the best it can be when it comes to serving our citizens, our municipal governments and our staff.

We couldn’t help but nod our heads in agreement with many of the situations that the conference speakers talked about, such as open communication, working with the union executive and collaborating with volunteers, and doing what needs to be done. One of the points discussed was how frightening things can be when you take on the role of fire chief. Both of us have worked our way up the ladder from firefighter, to officer, then to deputy chief and fire chief. As such, we appreciate how the climb to chief can help to build the foundation you will draw upon when you become chief. That said, there will be gaps in your skills, knowledge and abilities. When you become chief, even though you thought you were totally prepared, you now understand that the department’s vision and values rest on your shoulders, and you realize that the buck stops with you. In past positions, you had someone above you to shoulder the responsibility or blame. But now you are in charge and problems and challenges are landing squarely in your lap. So what will you do?

All the leadership books in the world will not help you if you haven’t built a foundation of self-confidence and competence, including confidence in your staff. You got to this position because you were the best candidate. Your staff are where they are because they have earned their positions and ranks (at least you hope so). Don’t forget the lessons you have learned during this upward journey. Open and honest communication goes a long way, so apply it and be confident in what you are doing.

Secondly, you need to understand that the learning curve you are embarking upon at this point in your career is the steepest ever, similar to the training for a black belt in taekwondo. Upon receiving the black belt, the individual realizes just how much he or she doesn’t know and how much more learning and responsibility is required at that level. So, buckle up and get ready for an exciting ride. This is not a ride that you must take alone; confide in your deputies and other senior staff. Trust them and use them as a support mechanism. After all, you reap what you sow. Allow you and your new team to grow together.


Thirdly, all of us make mistakes. Remember that it’s better to make a bad decision than no decision at all. You can always learn from mistakes and improve your ability to act upon issues. But if you fail to make any decisions, then you demonstrate that dreaded paralysis through analysis, and you will eventually find your staff making decisions for you. Don’t let this happen. If it does, your staff will lose confidence in your ability to lead.

Finally, reflect on your leadership journey and how it got you to your position. Unless it was a matter of outliving all of the other candidates, you’ve already done a lot of things correctly, and many key people have noticed this, so have confidence in yourself. Sometimes you may not be sure which path to follow, but rely on your gut feeling; chances are good that your decision will be the right one.

We have all heard the axiom that too many cooks can spoil the broth. Yet all great kitchens have a lot of talented sous-chefs who make the teams excel. We have these people in our organizations, whether in management, in the union or in volunteer positions, and they bring experience, education and competence to the table. Communicate with them and use them to your advantage.

Give yourself time to acclimatize to the position and, likewise, give the department time to acclimatize to you. If you were with the department before you became chief, use this familiarity to your advantage. You know what needs to change and whether staff want to admit it or not, they know what needs to change. If you are new to the department then you are starting with a clean slate and you can use the opportunity to build a strong reputation as a good communicator, someone who believes in the strength of his or her people and who can be trusted. Either way, your firefighters and other teammates will be watching you and waiting to help you when you need them. 

Our profession is at a crossroads. We can turn left and fall on our faces, or we can turn right and together move the fire service to the next level. We know where we want to go. Do you?

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