Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum: June 2019

Have you ever heard or said the phrase, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak?”  

May 15, 2019 
By Chris Harrow

I know I have given that quote to many new recruits who are trying to fit into a station. How many leaders abide by this advice as well?

I am sure we all know many leaders who have forgotten this advice and need to go back to listening like they were a recruit.

I truly believe the art of listening has become lost in, not only the fire service, but in society in general. The need for people to one-up someone or be the first to get information out has taken away the ability for people to listen to others around them.  

Social media has compounded the entire issue with not only the ability to get information out quickly, but also the lack of face-to-face interactions. This lack of interactions is a topic of another article.


A good leader needs to be exceptional at listening. You will never pick up on problems present in your department unless you are actively listening for them.  

There is a lot of material and courses available to leaders dealing with various techniques and theories on listening skills. Sometimes though, simpler is better. Going back to basic communication techniques, especially listening, can be the most effective method to use.

We can all think of someone we know who is not a good listener. It is that person who is constantly interrupting when you are speaking. They don’t even allow you to finish a thought before they are talking over you about something they have done. Or, they are that person who always has a story to try and outdo the story you just told.  

When these acts come from a leader, it diminishes the faith firefighters have in their leadership.

Personally, nothing irks me more than when I am talking to a person who constantly interrupts or who can’t wait for me to finish a sentence to be able to get to his or her point.

As a leader, you need to take the time to actively listen to what is being told to you. I believe this is so important for any fire service leader. Even if you don’t agree with what was delivered to you, showing the individual you are hearing what he or she says demonstrates you have given it some thought.

Another huge mistake leaders make is not giving firefighters their undivided attention. How many people do you know who are on their phone or answering emails when they are speaking with you? You know there is no way they are listening to what was communicated.

Nothing is more demeaning to a firefighter who takes the large step of coming to you as his or her leader and you not giving them your undivided attention. A firefighter will definitely think twice about coming in to speak with you if he or she did not feel heard.

In the fast-paced life we all lead, listening has been pushed aside. We are so focused on our email and electronics, we forget about the old-fashioned ability to converse and listen.

When someone comes into my office, I always try and show them respect and place my phone off to the side of my desk and close my computer. It also takes away the temptation for me to be distracted by a message or phone call when the conversation is taking place.

As leaders, we can’t underestimate the strength it takes for a firefighter to bring a problem or issue to our attention. Word will spread pretty quickly amongst the rank how engaged you are when discussing a problem. It won’t be long until you are bypassed when issues arise. As a leader, that is the last thing I want.

There is no special training that needs to be taken to be a better listener. As a leader, you need to make a concerted effort to be a good listener. Demonstrating your commitment daily to being an effective listener will constantly show your firefighters your genuine interest in their issues.

Always try to put yourself in their shoes. It really stinks when you are trying to speak at the front of a group of firefighters and not one of them is paying any attention to you.  

The simple art of listening is one of the sincerest forms of respect. Remember to not listen with the intent to reply, but with the intent to understand.

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

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