Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Leadership
Leadership Forum: December 2018

There is the famous phrase every firefighter in the world has heard or used, “But we have always done it that way.”

November 19, 2018 
By Chris Harrow

Each time the phrase is uttered, it makes me cringe and, at times, I’m embarrassed for our industry.

Fire service leaders need to be very cognizant of the term and never get sucked into using the phrase as a guideline for their day-to-day operations.  

Over the years, there has been an abundance of articles written about breaking traditions and how to modernize the fire service and firefighters.

A common trap that leaders in the fire service fall into is to not exercise practices learned in the material to break the cycle of tradition.


Many times, it is easier to carry on with the methods the department has used in the past.

Senior leadership in a department can also get stale and find it easier to maintain status quo and not continue to strive to be better.

A common function in a volunteer department is that the chief or deputy chief takes command at every incident.

Day or night, weekday or weekend, a chief is in command because this is the way it always has been done.

Now, take this process back and look at it from another perspective and establish a better process of establishing command. Did the municipality hire you as a senior officer to take command of every incident or were you hired to ensure the administrative side of the department runs smoothly?

I would also venture a guess that each officer in your department is trained in incident command and other officer functions. When do they get to practice their skills and learn from their mistakes if someone else is always taking control?

Using the example above, and applying various techniques of breaking the mold from a traditional way to a more modern method, can demonstrate how it improves your department and assists you in many different areas.  

Allowing newer officers an opportunity to use the skills they have learned will undoubtedly improve morale around the stations. I don’t know many officers who sign up for an officer role because they are excited to complete more paperwork and administrative functions.

When officers get to use their skills it motivates them even more to want to take on higher roles because they see the opportunities first hand.

The theory also works for training sessions and department meetings.

Sharing the responsibilities of leading training sessions and conducting department meetings can go a long way in challenging officers to use the leadership skills they have acquired.   

Volunteers especially, join the department to experience challenges and push themselves to see what they can accomplish. Allowing them to “spread their wings” can have positive impacts on the entire department.

For a fire chief or other senior officer, it allows them to step back and observe things from a totally different light. It shows them who has the potential for success in future promotions, sort of like an ongoing job interview.

It can also be extremely satisfying to see a younger firefighter succeeding in a new role.  

As a senior officer, you can be there to field questions during an incident or after when the debrief takes place.

It becomes a great resource for captains and other senior firefighters to know they can take command, but have someone available to bounce ideas off of or assist them if the incident progresses.

A great leadership technique is to constantly challenge your department to come up with new ways of accomplishing its goals. We send firefighters to courses all the time.

Do we allow them time when they come back to demonstrate at the next training session what they learned and how the new skills can improve upon existing techniques?

Or, do we not allow younger firefighters the opportunity because they don’t have enough seniority? By taking on the philosophy you always want to strive to find better ways, you can see how many instances arise in a week and can be used to promote change.    

I know many departments implement change on an ongoing basis, but there are many still out there working the same way they have for the past 30 years.

As leaders in a department, you need to be able to listen to firefighters coming up through the ranks. They have some solid ideas that could be implemented, or at the least, be discussed.

Nothing improves morale around a station better than when firefighters are given the ability to try a new concept and teach an old firefighter a new idea.

I love seeing how it keeps the more senior personnel on their toes to keep up with the younger personnel.

I believe each person in the service should keep the motto that the status quo is not acceptable posted somewhere in their stall or office.

Each day you put on your uniform or your bunker gear, you should be searching for a new and improved way of doing your daily tasks. All of my mentors in my career have followed the same philosophy and driven it into me.

You may think you have the best way, but there is always a better way.

The last thing it does in a volunteer department is drastically improve the recruitment and retention of firefighters. The word quickly gets out about an organization that is continually striving to be better and breaking new ground.  

In my experience, people in the community are drawn to this concept and want to join organizations with strong reputations. There is a big difference between an organization that is respected for what it does but does the same thing over and over again, as opposed to an organization that has the same respect but is known to be innovative and always challenging its people. I know which one I would want to join.

I challenge all firefighters to work together in their organizations to strive to improve constantly.

You may not be the best at coming up with new concepts, but ensure you are able to accept change and are not scared to try something different.

The fire service would definitely be an even better profession if we were well known for our ability to design and handle change regularly.

Chris Harrow is the fire chief in Minto, Ont. He is a graduate from fire programs at Lakeland College and Dalhousie University and holds a graduate certificate in Advanced Care Paramedics from Conestoga College. He can be reached at

Print this page


Stories continue below