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Leadership Forum: Top 5 ways to ruin your career

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is when I have the chance to speak with people just starting out in a fire service career. There is an amazing and infectious energy that fills a room when new fire service professionals are present. The excitement is palpable.

February 21, 2018 
By Matt Pegg

When I have the chance to address a class of new fire service recruits, I make a point to explain that the fire service is grounded in hard work, honour, courage, compassion, service and trust. Everything we are today as a service is the result of hard work and dedication from the women and men that came before us. Every day that we serve, we do so in their memory. Likewise, as the current generation of fire service professionals, it is our responsibility to leave the service better than we found it.

I also take the time to explain to new recruits the top five ways to ruin your career in the fire service. While this is initially usually met with an eerie and awkward silence, it is vital information for new fire service professionals to understand. Interestingly enough, these are equally important and applicable truths for fire service leaders as well. Here is my top five list of career-ending decisions.

  1. Lie. The fire service relies upon the unquestioned trust of those we serve and those who we serve alongside. There is no place in the fire service for a liar. If you aren’t willing to be honest, then you will not have a successful career in the fire service. From simply admitting and owning up to a mistake, to having the courage to be completely honest with council rather than manufacturing a convenient answer, honesty separates the professionals from the posers.
  2. Cheat. Performing our duties under pressure demands both competence and professionalism. Someone who seeks to cheat the system will never be a competent worker in the fire service. I read recently that “the only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.” This is absolutely true in the fire services. Cheaters, and those who are afraid of doing honest, hard work don’t make good fire service professionals – and they certainly don’t make good leaders.
  3. Steal. As fire service personnel, we are granted unsupervised access to people’s homes and businesses, personal possessions, and we are even entrusted with the lives of our community members. It takes a lifetime to earn this kind of trust, and only one thief to destroy it. Thieves need not apply.
  4. Tarnish our reputation. Today’s fire service operates in the public eye, and rightfully so. We exist to serve the taxpayers in our communities. Our image and reputation is vital to the delivery of efficient and effective emergency services. When you join a department, and most certainly when you seek promotion, you are signing up for a 24-7 code of conduct and behaviour. There is no such thing as “off-duty” in these roles and everything we do impacts the reputation of our service – good or bad. If new members are not prepared to embrace the responsibility of being a public figure, they ought not work in the fire service.
  5. Endanger our people. Being a fire service professional is inherently dangerous. As a fire chief, I expect our people to place themselves in harm’s way to protect public safety and save the lives of others. However, we should take on these dangers only after completing carefully calculated risk assessments that demand training, expertise, personal protective equipment, and other safety precautions. We each share a personal and professional responsibility for protecting the health and safety of those we work with. If you aren’t prepared to do everything in your power to keep yourself and your crew safe, then I can assure you that the fire service is not for you.

In my experience, if one or more of these five rules are broken, members can expect that their fire service career will come to an immediate halt.  

From the frontline to fire chief, serving in the fire service is both an honour and privilege. As leaders, we have an obligation to embody, uphold and enforce these rules, beginning with our own personal behaviour and performance.  


As leaders, we have the responsibility to hold ourselves accountable, while holding those who report to us equally accountable.  

The public we serve and protect deserve nothing less.

Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. Contact Pegg at

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