Leadership Forum: Legacy exemplified
My entry into the Canadian fire service was as a volunteer firefighter in the then small town of Georgina, Ont. I was born and raised on a farm in nearby Keswick, and while working as a mechanic, Fire Chief Allan Bush hired me as a volunteer firefighter, and in doing so, ignited a passion in me that has yet to be extinguished. He would later hire me as a career firefighter and then promote me as my career developed under his leadership.
Chief Bush is an extraordinary man and is nothing less than a legend in my eyes. He is the embodied definition of dedication and caring, treating everyone with respect and leading from the front. To this day, I have never known someone to give more of themselves to the fire service, and the people we serve, than Chief Bush. There was no challenge too big, nor was there any task too small for him as chief.
Chief Bush was a firefighter’s fire chief. He was a bold and aggressive incident commander who expected us to fight fire. I remember being the incident commander on the scene of a stubborn structure fire one cold and miserable night. Chief Bush arrived on scene and parked his car beside where I was standing. After observing the situation for a few minutes, he lowered his driver’s side window, smiled at me and asked “Are we going to put this fire out or wait until we can kick snow on it?” As we both burst out laughing, he got out of his car and calmly went to work. And I knew, without question, that I had his trust.
Chief Bush created an environment where we were both safe and supported. We also knew that laziness, selfishness or a lack of commitment and dedication to our duty as firefighters was unwelcomed and would not be tolerated.
Long before we talked about key performance indicators or NFPA performance metrics, Chief Bush set the standard for turnout time. As an on-duty career firefighter, my turnout time goal was easily defined – to get in the truck and “on the air” before Chief Bush did from his home. This was a goal seldom achieved by anyone, and I spent many years being convinced that he never actually left his car.
I remember being on-duty in the Keswick fire station one beautiful summer evening and having a chat with the Chief. In a calm, focused and warm yet direct tone, Chief Bush explained to me that every one of us ought to “kiss the floor tiles in the fire station” every single day we walked in. Before I could respond, he went on to explain that we have been given an extraordinary privilege and that we should consider ourselves fortunate to have the opportunity to be a firefighter, to serve others and to be part of something both bigger and more important than any of us as individuals.
I haven’t worked for Chief Bush since 2001 when he retired from a truly exemplary career. It seems like a lifetime has happened since those days, but the impact Chief Bush has had on not only my career, but my life, is both evident and clear to me to this day. And it strikes me that this is the true definition of leadership legacy.
He believed in me and pushed me to be the very best I could be. He taught me that being a firefighter, and wearing this uniform, is a privilege that is never to be squandered; that none of us are more important than the team. He taught me that being a good firefighter is like a savings account: you can’t take out more than you have put in.
He taught me never to take myself too seriously and to never miss an opportunity to enjoy a good laugh; that it is okay to hurt and that we never need to hurt alone. He showed me that being the chief is really about doing our very best to make the worst day of someone’s life better and about caring more than anyone will ever truly know.
It has been nearly 20 years since Chief Bush was my fire chief. Yet, every week without fail, he calls to see how I am doing. He always asks me how I am holding up, and there is seldom, if ever a conversation where at some point he doesn’t tell me that he is proud of me.
This is what leadership legacy looks like – making a difference in the lives and careers of the people we lead each day. Thank you for setting the example Chief Bush.
Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. He is currently the incident commander for Toronto’s COVID-19 response. Contact Matthew at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @ChiefPeggTFS.