Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum: Make taking care of yourself a top priority

November 15, 2019
By Chris Harrow

Over the past few years, the mental well-being of first responders has been the subject of much conversation. Many great leaders have now implemented programs to take care of their personnel. How many of these great leaders have implemented programs to take care of themselves? How many have managers who oversee their department that pay attention to the mental health of the fire chief? In my personal and professional experience, I have seen too many leaders fail to take the steps to take care of themselves.

There have been many articles written about taking care of yourself and ensuring you have a healthy mind before you lead your firefighters each day. Lots of great seminars have been run to teach leaders techniques on self-help. Realistically, not many leaders have taken the advice or training seriously and implemented what they learned. Even worse, many leaders totally avoid the topic of mental health out of fear of facing the reality.

I will say right up front that I am a hypocrite as I write this article. I do not follow many of the suggestions made by experts on how to take care of yourself or put yourself first. My wife will read this article and probably glare at me. She has preached this for years and I have not heeded her advice. It’s not that I disagree with her; I am just horrible at taking the advice. So, the disclaimer of the article is do as is written not as the author does.

The demands placed on leaders can be overwhelming. A normal day involves being pulled in 10 different directions. I am beginning to realize that starting the day without a sharp mind or a clear focus makes dealing with day-to-day issues that much harder. I can always feel the difference when I have a good sleep and prepare myself better in the morning for the day. Even something small, like not having a proper breakfast, can set you up with a poorer frame of mind. A lot of fire service leaders head into the office early and get started before others are up and functioning. This works for them, but how are they later in the day when the demands pick up? Would taking the time to eat well or go for a walk first thing have worked better? Only each individual knows, but it requires being honest with yourself about how you are handling your days.

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Another huge issue in the fire service is having a peer of similar rank or responsibility to confide in. There are a great deal of leaders who are so skeptical of showing any weakness to others, especially in the fire service. But leaders are not superhumans or robots who have no feelings. For the overall health of the individual, having one or two confidants is very important.

It is extremely important that each leader has a peer of similar rank they can sit down and decompress with. Unfortunately, in the fire service, only leaders of similar rank can understand the pressures you are under and issues you face. Listening and solving a firefighter’s issues or decisions made at a large-scale incident cannot be discussed with individuals who have not faced it before. Only someone who has been in that situation can truly understand what you are going through.

Leaders are expected to guide their departments through crises. They are expected to look after their people on a daily basis. They need to monitor and ensure their personnel are getting the help they need when the situation arises. Most leaders excel at this and have written up excellent critical incident stress protocols for their departments to follow. However, how many departments have protocols for their senior leadership team to follow? At the time of writing this article, we don’t (hence the do as I write, not as I actually do). How many make it a priority that after the personnel get looked after, they then follow a similar debriefing for themselves or their team around them?

The questions I put forward here are to promote thought amongst senior leaders. Many probably have their own procedures they use to debrief and relieve stress in their lives. Throughout any senior fire service leader’s career, there are going to be high stress decisions made that will cause you to second guess yourself. Each leader needs to have one or two go-to peers where they can sit down and discuss the situation. These are peers who don’t pass judgement, they just listen and have good feedback. They are peers who know you and know when you are struggling with a certain issue and can get you help if need be. Everyone should identify this person or persons and ensure they use them.


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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