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Leadership Forum: Fire chiefs should have a true open-door policy


August 19, 2019
By Chris Harrow

The hottest topic in not only fire services but all of emergency services is occupational stress injuries (OSIs), including post-traumatic stress disorders. Many of us in the industry work hard every day to stay on top of this ever-changing topic. We strive every day to do what is best for our teams.

A difficult aspect of being a chief officer is to continue to show leadership when it comes to OSIs. We are constantly questioning what to do to properly handle ourselves and guide our crews through difficult times. Many of us question our abilities every day in this new and rapidly expanding topic.

Maintaining a leadership role in an environment we are uncomfortable in is difficult. Leaders trying to navigate a world they know very little about is also hard and tests a leader’s training and skills. I believe, though, there are a few things good leaders already do that can help any of our crews in difficult times. These skills just need to be done better to handle the new normal we find ourselves in.

One of the first things we can do is be available. The concept seems so easy, but too often is not done well. Officers, from captains through to the chief, need to be available for their team.

Many say they have an open-door policy, but is that really the case? Allowing firefighters to enter your space whenever they need to discuss personal matters is a key part of an open-door policy. A firefighter is not going to wait and make an appointment to be able to see you. They will want to do it immediately, when the feelings they have are imminent.

An open-door policy can be extremely inconvenient for getting a day’s work done. There is no doubt you will be right in the middle of writing an important council report and someone will stop in. That firefighter doesn’t know how important that report is. All they see is you, as their leader, putting aside whatever you are doing and listening to them speak. Immediately you have gained the respect of that firefighter and the three others they will tell. Think of the roles reversed. You, as the chief, go into the CAO/city manager’s office because you have an important issue to discuss. If your superior was to brush you off, you would immediately feel like you have been disrespected. If she was to see you right away, a feeling of mutual respect is probably what you would experience.

Firefighters view the fire station as an outlet. It is a safe place for them to be able to vent, act up or unload their issues. As painful as this may be for some officers and other firefighters in the station, it is an absolute necessity. Every person needs a safe place to vent. Being able to provide this venue is key to showing leadership as an officer, especially in the volunteer setting. Volunteers, for the most part, are at the fire station because they want to be. They have chosen to be there, so they feel comfortable being there.

Firefighters, like many people, have issues occurring in their lives. They may be having problems with their spouse, their children or their full-time position or whatever else may be happening in their life. The fire department is the one place that is normal and they want to feel comfortable at work. It is also the place where they can unload their problems to a willing listener.

Many times, however, they will lash out and vent their frustrations forcibly to whoever gets in their way. As long as the actions do not cross any lines for harassment or bullying or any other existing policies, a good leadership practice is to take it. They are using their only safe place to let off steam in an attempt to get their mind back to a healthy place.

I have witnessed individuals venting on many occasions. While they vent, the listener can ask themselves what else is going on in the person’s life. Allowing them to have a safe space to pour out their frustrations is an important part of a fire station. Mental health support and services is now a key part of the fire service. Many of us have employee assistance programs to help out our staff. But do you, as their leader, know how to access the programs? A good leader will be able to explain the program and understand some of the procedures involved once it has been accessed.

Whether it is listening to their rants, giving them a safe space to be in, having a true open-door policy or referring them to proper resources, our people must come first. Their safety and mental health are as important as those we strive to protect every day.


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 c.harrow@mintofiredept.on.ca.


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