Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership: Motivation and executive ability

What motivates an individual to become a fire fighter? Is it the pay, the anticipated excitement, public admiration or a true desire to make a difference in one’s community – the “to serve and protect” mindset? I suggest that if most were to answer truthfully, they would say the thrill of an emergency and the admiration of the public top the list.

December 10, 2007
By E. David Hodgins

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What motivates an individual to become a fire fighter? Is it the pay, the anticipated excitement, public admiration or a true desire to make a difference in one’s community – the “to serve and protect” mindset? I suggest that if most were to answer truthfully, they would say the thrill of an emergency and the admiration of the public top the list. Those who aspire to become fire fighters are highly motivated and will go to great lengths to secure a volunteer or full-time position.

The key issue is once the person is hired, how do you as the leader channel their passion and motivate them over the long-term? How do you motivate them to expand their enthusiasm to include an interest in routine activities beyond the perceived glamour of an emergency? Motivation is critical in gaining their desire to support public education and prevention programs. But creating a genuine interest is a challenge, as there is no adrenaline rush associated with these programs.

Leadership responsibility involves influencing team members and motivating them so that they want to do whatever needs to be done. It’s been said that motivation is a combination of ambition and enthusiasm aimed at achieving a goal. In reality, motivation depends on several factors. It may be as simple as working hard so you can go home on time, to the more complicated – such as the desire to meet a timeline to impress a chief officer.

Influence and motivate
As the leader you have the power to influence and motivate. Accepting that individuals are inspired by a diversity of factors is a good start. Like other professions, fire fighters are motivated by passions and influences connected to their upbringing, education and childhood, ideas, thinking, values, interests and desires. Leaders should recognize what motivates individuals and this requires a comprehensive understanding of human nature.  An individual’s basic work-related interests include health and safety, decent working conditions, job security, advancement, salary increases and good benefits, as well as the approval, recognition and respect of peers and leaders.

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To address these interests and motivate fire fighters, chief officers must ensure fire fighters have access to continuing education and skills training so they can be ready for reclassification and promotion opportunities. The leader is responsible for ensuring the workplace is a safe place and that fire fighters have the skills and tools needed to undertake dangerous assignments in as safe a manner as possible.

Various motivators are internal, such as one’s desire to do a good job, while others are external, such as the need to fit within the work environment and its culture. The unique culture of the fire service plays a big part when it comes to your attempts to motivate fire fighters to take on prevention, education and inspection program activities. One of the most important things you can do as the leader is to uncompromisingly encourage and support fire fighters who show an interest in this less popular work.

Reward good behaviour
Remember to seek out and reward good behaviour, the “catch someone doing something right” approach. Rewards do not have to be over-the-top. A simple public thank you for a job well done is a powerful motivator. Leaders do not have control over, and nor are they responsible for, what individuals do off the job, however, good leaders are genuinely interested and know when to offer assistance, support and compassion for individuals in their time of need. An accomplished leader looks for opportunities to include an individual and to confirm they are part of the team and not just a disinterested bystander. To infuse motivation, individuals need to know that their involvement is important and meaningful. Don’t be afraid to protect individuals from bureaucracy when necessary. We all recognize that certain rules are downright humiliating and need to be challenged. At the same time, leaders are responsible for telling individuals when they are not performing as required.

To be a motivator, become a leader – an individual known for honourable and solid values and ethics. You must be the role model that you want others to grow into. Be aware of your actions and the impact of your decisions. Allow staff to be part of the decision-making process. Being involved promotes ownership and ownership translates into personal interest and personal interest into the desire to achieve success beyond emergency response. This is motivation!

And remember, it’s all about “respect and passion.”

E. David Hodgins is the Fire Commissioner for the province of British Columbia. A 29-year veteran of the fire service, Hodgins is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s public administration program and a certified emergency and disaster manager and fire services instructor. He has held senior fire officer positions in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario.


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