Firelines: May 2016

Are you fit to lead a fire department?
May 01, 2016
Written by Dave Balding
As a chief officer, I expect my firefighters to maintain a level of fitness and competence to enable them to safely and effectively perform their duties. In return, I must keep myself fit in order to be at my best for the people I guide, inspire and serve. Are you a fit leader?


There are several facets to fitness for leadership; the first one that comes to mind is physical condition. If there is a downside to advancing toward progressively senior positions, it’s the more sedentary nature of the job. I’m very fortunate that my position, while mainly administrative, also has some operational aspects; that makes the need for physical fitness quite clear. However, all fire-service leaders – whether they drive a desk all day long or attend every emergency call – need to set aside time to exercise; they’ll be better at what they do and they’ll set a great example for their teams.     

Being fit for leadership also means being mentally healthy. The increased awareness around critical-incident stress and mental health overall is not only long overdue, but is also great news for the first-responder community. Open and candid conversations about this vital topic will continue to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around mental health. Much like physical wellness, firefighters must learn to first look after our own mental health. I recently attended a seminar that explained how an unhealthy work-life balance affects emergency responders’ abilities to cope with traumatic incidents. Leaders in the fire service tend to give it their all. Are you setting aside enough time for family and personal pursuits?

Another trait of those who are most fit to lead is passion for what they do. I am seldom more revved up about my amazing profession than after attending a conference or other networking opportunity. Conferences expose us to fresh ideas, products and acquaintances – both old and new, foster conversations and provide the perfect forums for problem solving and reinvigorating passion for leadership. The educational components of conferences are usually topical and cutting edge. Yes, these opportunities take us away from our communities, but they also allow us to share best practices, great experiences, and to showcase our departments. Membership in associations that host these conferences is another huge opportunity for leadership growth. Active participation and giving your time and talent to a provincial or other association grows us as leaders.

We, as chief officers, insist on continuing professional development for our firefighters and we must do the same for ourselves. Ongoing training improves us operationally and as leaders. While it can be easy to get caught up in the frenzy of the day-to-day operation of a fire department, it’s imperative to break out of that complacency and take opportunities to grow. Of course leaders must continue to advance their skills and knowledge of fire fighting and related duties, but they must also continually strive to improve at another vital art – guiding and inspiring the folks who make up our companies, battalions or departments.

Those most fit to lead are fully engaged with their organizations; they have a vision and are able to communicate it clearly to their members and others. A leader’s vision may entail change, whether it’s operational change in the department or change for council and the taxpayers they represent – for example a new fire hall. Let’s consider the obverse; some in positions of leadership view change as a threat. True leaders evaluate change and embrace suggestions from others.

Firefighters who are well suited to lead are much more than administrators or managers, they are there for the organization and, what’s more, they are there for the people. One of the benefits of belonging to a small department is the privilege of getting to know each one of my members more than might be possible in a larger organization. No matter the size of the department, true leaders always look out for their members.

Another measure of fitness to lead is the ability, and commitment, to expand boundaries. Today’s emergency services and the agencies with which they deal are more interconnected than ever. We can no longer operate in silos; we must be comfortable reaching out and expanding our horizons beyond the norm, which means forging new relationships where we may not have previously.

It’s clear to me that to do the best job of looking after others, we must first look after ourselves. Look after your physical and mental well-being, engage with your colleagues in associations, continue to pursue training, and always grow. Chief officers must also promote this growth within our members, who are tomorrow’s leaders – we want them to be as fit as they can be.


Dave Balding joined the fire service in 1985 and is now fire chief in Golden, B.C. Contact Dave at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @FireChiefDaveB


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