Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum: What we’ve learned from where we’ve been

August 19, 2022  By Chris Harrow


It is my honour to write this column for the 65th anniversary edition of Fire Fighting in Canada as it has given me an opportunity to look back at leaders of the past and the traits that have laid the foundation for us as leaders today.

I am sure everyone can recall a leader in their past and what an influence the person had on your career or the person you are today. They may have demonstrated a skill or trait that was so memorable or influential that you still use it in your day-to-day leadership. It is a good thing for all of us to reflect on where we came from and what we’ve learned. 

I remember the origins of Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) teams in fire halls. We never knew or formalized it in the past as a CISM team, but essentially it was one to deal with the incidents of the past. Back in the day, everyone used to gather at the fire halls after serious calls and have a beverage, usually acholic in nature. It was an unwritten rule in many fire halls that you stuck around to “discuss” the call over a beverage and decompress. The chiefs of the day made sure everyone knew the rule and watched for everyone to partake. It was essentially an early day CISM team run by the department and overseen by the chief.

Now we have learned from that iteration of CISM that using alcohol to draw people into discussions is not a good thing. We have also come up with a more organized approach and methodology for completing debriefings and diffusing, but many of the origins can be tied back to the sessions most fire departments had sitting around a table talking over a cold beverage.

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When I look back at some of the leaders I worked for in the fire service, one trait I picked up early on in my career was the “lead by example” technique. Many old school leaders were of the opinion that they would not send a firefighter to do a task that they couldn’t complete themselves. They would constantly lead by example at a scene. Back then, there was no incident command structure and no command area. Many times the chief would be right beside the crew in the hot zone helping them with the task. Many times this was also done with air packs, because in old school fire fighting there was a need for air packs! We have been able to learn from this trait and improve upon our safety and command structure, but the ability to show the firefighters that you can do the same tasks they can or lead by example still exists for many leaders.

Many of our communication techniques have been passed down from previous generations of leaders. It is very important to look at how they communicated and disseminated information through their departments without the use of social media and cell phones. Today, we rely too much on cell phones and technology to get our messages across. I fall into this trap way too often when a good old-fashioned conversation would help move things along much faster and more effectively. I remember the few times I got into trouble (well, maybe more than a few), and it resulted in a meeting in the chief’s office for a discussion. One former chief was very intimidating around the others and in general meetings, but when you got one-on-one with him, he was the nicest most supportive person you could work for. I could not imagine, in this day and age, how he would come across texting or messaging!

Using the art of conversation seems to be a dying trend and it is something we need to look at resurrecting from our previous generation. I know it is extremely tough because the younger firefighters coming through the ranks are so used to messaging with their cell phone that the art of conversation is getting lost. It is upon us as leaders to take them out of their comfort zones and engage them in conversation. It worked so well for our predecessors; I am sure it could help with our communications around the stations.

One of the most amazing things we do in the fire service is sit around and swap stories of the past. Nothing engages a crowd of young firefighters more than an older firefighter telling stories of yesterday. They are amazed at what happened in the past and what was learned from the incident. This is a great example of leadership being passed on to a new generation. It is always important for us to look at our past and learn from it. Learning from our past will make better firefighters and fire services. Respect the past and let it form a bright future for all of us.

Editor’s historical note: Chief Matthew Pegg began writing for the Leadership Forum in November 2016, and was joining by his co-author Chief Harrow in March 2018. Thank you for your contributions to the leadership conversation in Fire Fighting in Canda!


Chris Harrow is the director of fire services for the Town of Minto and Township of Wellington North in Ontario. 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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