Leadership
Written by Tom Bremner
You’re the chief. How did you get to your position?

In days gone by, if you stayed in the service long enough, you became chief. Or perhaps you won a popularity contest.

To be a chief today requires you to be all things to all people – a public relations pro; a human resources manager; a budgeting and finance expert; a fund raiser; a social worker; a labour negotiations expert; a mentor; a leader; a succession planner. You report to a body, whether municipal/city or provincial, that may offer you little to no support. And don’t forget the taxpayer – who is sure he knows that all a firefighter does is drive a truck and aim a hose.

You may be misunderstood and are certainly criticized. How do we, and our departments, get a handle on this? As chief, you are the leader of your department and it is incumbent on you to ensure that you provide the atmosphere and venue in which your men and women can have the complete and complex training required to protect themselves and their communities.

Start with yourself. Sit down with a paper and pencil; draw a line down the centre of the paper and head one column “strong” and the other “less strong.” Be brutally honest. Think about how you might organize your time more effectively. In some of the areas where you are strong, can you mentor one of your team members to learn about and take on some tasks? Strong leaders are not afraid to share knowledge and responsibility.

For decades, chiefs were groomed to be fixers and in-house managers of everything. Are you one of these leaders? If so, are you exhausted and running out of internal options? Why not look for other solutions within your own community or nearby? Budget managing is always the No. 1 leadership challenge and has worn down many good leaders. In many cases, locating and chatting with outside (and inside) resources brings the light at the end of the tunnel. Trying to handle everything, every day, in house, with limited or no expertise is dangerous.

Do you dread writing reports? Think about drafting what you want to convey in point form, and then let someone edit your thoughts into a coherent report. Maybe you can find these people outside your department. You still own the budget or the report, but accepting expert help is not weakness; it is the mark of a strong leader.

This same process can be applied to your department. In areas in which your department and its members are strong, acknowledgement and praise go a long way to maintaining those strengths. Where you are less strong, involve trusted senior members in the initial steps of planning how to make things better. Do not be afraid to involve your whole department. Sometimes a really good idea will come from a new, fresh set of eyes. Let someone else talk about why you do certain things the way you do. What a great teaching and leadership opportunity. Consider having a professional lead a brainstorming session with only two rules: all ideas are welcome, and there is no evaluation or criticism allowed. It takes courage to do this, but it can pay real dividends. Members are more likely to buy into a new plan if they feel involved in the process.

Two cautions: first, don’t try to do everything at once. Have a three-year plan. Then ask yourself, “To accomplish this plan, what do I need to do in one year? In six months? In three months? This month?” Secondly, you are still the boss. Ask for and listen to input from members, accept help in drafting your plans, but in the end the buck stops at your desk.

I have left the most important point to the last. Look to your fellow chiefs for support. Attend all of the conventions and courses that you can. Get to know colleagues. There are some very talented, supportive chiefs in Canada who have done the legwork, and they are always willing to chat. Chiefs often hold back on asking for help because of a fear of appearing weak. Being open and vulnerable in the right setting and with trusted colleagues is a good skill to have.

Hence the column title “How much can our service handle?” This is not only about the level of service we provide members and communities, but also about us as humans beings and leaders. No community or service should let its leaders drown in an overwhelming workload. If you are caught up in a stream of endless challenges without support, it might be time to make some calls to trusted colleagues.

Be wise enough to understand and value yourself and your service before you take on a tough challenge. Education, communication and having trusted mentors will assist you tremendously if you choose to use them. And please feel free to connect with me.


Tom Bremner is the fire chief for Salt Spring Island, B.C. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


Written by Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan
We are going to identify four basic principles that will help current and future leaders grow and achieve excellence.

The principle of change surmises that change is a part of life and achieving excellence as a leader means that you become comfortable with change and accept the fact that without change there can be no progress. This is an important principle because, for the most part, people are not comfortable with change, but when leadership excellence is being pursued (and it should be), leaders must venture into the unknown with faith, and believe they will figure out things along the way and succeed.

The principle of belief may seem to have religious undertones, but that is not what we mean here. The principle of belief is based on the belief in oneself; leaders must believe in their abilities and skills. Leaders must believe they can make a positive difference in their departments. Without belief, an individual is simply going through the motions, and when tough times come (and we guarantee they will) the leadership foundation will already be weak and the leader will not survive the turbulent times.

Leaders will face challenges and there may be times when they make poor decisions. Poor decisions can impact leadership ability; if a leader believes that he or she failed by making a poor decision, a powerful message of self-failure tends to rattle around in that leader’s brain. The principle of belief simply redirects a leader’s thinking to focus on abilities and skills and to learn from a mistake and move on. Belief is a key factor in whether a leader succeeds, so we highly recommend that everyone understand the simplicity of this principle.

The principle of growth means that the path to leadership success is directly connected to commitment and growth. Today’s fire service requires firefighters who are not afraid to learn about the profession and the expectations placed upon fire-service leaders.

We all know that complacency can lead to tragic events; the same applies to leadership complacency. Let’s be perfectly clear – complacency does not occur overnight, it happens over time because of poor habits.

Growth comes from reading magazine articles, blogs and at least one leadership book a month. Leaders need to expand their minds so they can excel in their craft. The principle of growth must be understood so leaders can be successful in today’s dynamic fire service.

The principle of exceeding expectations is based on the belief that life favours those who do just that – exceed expectations. Give more than you expect to receive and you shall be the benefactor. Michelangelo said, “The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”

Never forget that actions have consequences. Strive to always exceed expectations because the more good work you do for others and your community, the more success you will achieve.

Author John Maxwell said, “If you want to be a big-picture thinker, you will have to go against the flow of the world. Society wants to keep people in boxes. Most people are married mentally to the status quo. They want what was, not what can be. They seek safety and simple answers. To think big-picture, you need to give yourself permission to go a different way, to break new ground, to find new worlds to conquer. And when your world does get bigger, you need to celebrate. Never forget there is more out there in the world than what you’ve experienced.”

Leaders must give themselves permission to exceed expectations and understand that leadership is more than leading within the station walls.

We have recommended in past columns the importance of having a mentor. Identify the characteristics, skills and vision of the mentor you seek and go find the right person. Mentorrship is an opportunity to learn from those you respect and want to model yourself after. It’s also a future opportunity for you to take the skills you’ve learned and become a mentor for others. There is no greater satisfaction than to be able to share (your knowledge and experience) with others to watch them grow.

The principles identified here have been borne out of our experiences as fire-service leaders. As you grow as leaders, you will find that your experiences will bring forth principles that will help you in your journey. More importantly, these principles must be shared so others can learn and grow.


Les Karpluk is the retired fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. Lyle Quan is the retired fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. Contact Les at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and Lyle at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Follow Les on Twitter at @GenesisLes and Lyle at @LyleQuan


Written by Denis Pilon
Talk of succession planning in the fire service often elicits a lot of blank stares. There is considerable confusion about succession planning – what is it, how to do it, and even where to get information about it. Succession planning is often misunderstood by senior managers and entry-level employees. Fire-service tradition dictated that if you hung around long enough you would eventually be the chief. Not only does this no longer apply, but it was a bad practice and is almost entirely responsible for fire being perceived as the outsider in municipal senior-management circles.

In most municipal departments, the senior-management team is made up of people with degrees in administration, engineering, finance, recreation, municipal planning or some other discipline, and many of these are at the master’s level or higher. In the fire service, the senior leaders are often the most experienced firefighters; although this is changing, more needs to be done to prepare our future leaders.

So what is succession planning and how is it done? Let’s first address what succession planning is not: it is not supplementing the pension of senior employees during their final years because they have put in years of good service; it is not a reward for long service or good service; it is not about hand-picking your successor. Some of this confusion can be attri-
buted to the term succession planning, which often leaves chiefs thinking they should plan who will succeed them when they leave. I prefer the term succession program as it is more holistic and applies to all members of the organization, not just a select few.

I remember conducting an interview with a new hire a number of years ago and when asked what his goal in the fire service was he replied, “To sit in your chair.” I hired him. I am often asked why I would hire someone who wants my job. My answer is that I know I won’t be here forever, and someone needs to take over when I leave. A succession program needs to start at the initial interview with entry-level candidates. The sooner you identify those who aspire to higher positions, the sooner you can start to support them.

Succession programs are about creating opportunities for members of the organization to advance to senior positions. These opportunities must be applied fairly and consistently throughout the organization. This is sometimes very hard to do as we all bring certain biases to the table and we like or dislike certain members of the department based on past or current events; this cannot be allowed to cloud the program or it will not work. Everyone must be given the opportunity to progress; the selection process will allow the cream to rise to the top.

Most fire departments have good succession programs in place for the lower ranks. There are courses and standards set for promotion to the next position, everyone is given the opportunity to complete the training, and the selection process allows the higher-quality candidates to move into the next positions. This works great up to the rank of captain, and even to the battalion-chief (or platoon-chief) level, but the system seems to break down beyond that.

What’s the solution? First, it’s important to identify what the job of fire chief really includes and determine the qualifications needed to do the job properly. Then, identify the programs that will meet the needs of the position and offer these programs to the senior members of the department – this may range from Fire Officer IV to a master’s degree, depending on the size of the department. The courses required to attain the necessary level of management or leadership skills must be made available during individuals’ careers so that when the time comes to replace the chief, there are a number of trained and qualified candidates available to compete for the position.

A succession program won’t have a formal list of steps you must take to reach the top, but more of a direction pointing to the top. Regularly read the ads for chief-officer positions to see what requirements municipalities seek in their new chiefs. Get a handle on the disciplines in which municipalities want their chief officers to have degrees. Start offering courses that lead to these degrees – start at the certificate level and move to diplomas, then degrees. Make these courses available to everyone – those who don’t make chief will have more to offer the department and will be a major asset over time.

Education, though important, is not enough. Your people need time to practice their skills in real-life situations under supervision. This is the mentoring phase, which many chief officers find difficult. Too many senior managers use the excuse that “it is quicker to just do it myself.” That may be true once, but the next time and the time after that it puts a great drain on your time if you haven’t taught someone else how to do the required tasks. Chief officers need to assign the jobs, and then get out of the way. Be available to assist if needed, but don’t step in to do it. The chief’s job is to observe, guide, correct and assist as needed. It is quite possible that your expectations won’t be met the first time, but with guidance, they will be met in the future and you will have a new resource at your fingertips. It is also possible that your expectations will be exceeded.



The requirement to pay a competitive salary to management employees is probably the most challenging aspect to developing a succession program; unfortunately, in many cases, it is also out of your hands. Management salaries have become a major issue for fire departments in areas that have removed indexing of out-of-scope salaries – salaries of those not included in the bargaining unit. This has closed the gap between the salaries of the highest-level unionized employees and the low-end salaries of the non-unionized employees to the point at which it makes little economic sense for a member to leave the floor to take a management position that may be less than secure in terms of one’s career. The situation can only be solved by the fire chief negotiating a salary agreement with the municipality that will survive his or her retirement.

Part of a good successful succession program is mandatory vacation time for you – the chief. I have known numerous senior managers who have retired with five to six months of vacation saved up. I know of many situations in which municipalities have had to force their senior managers to take their vacations or have paid them out. Paying out vacation does no good for anybody. Vacation has two benefits in a succession plan; first, it provides you with the opportunity to get away from the pressures of the job – to relax and unwind. This time away is very important for any manager. The other benefit of vacations is just as important; your senior employees are forced to take control of the whole operation and make the decisions you would normally make, without your input or oversight. Your staff must take responsibility for these decisions, and you will likely be surprised by how consistent their decisions are with yours.

To ensure that your staff members make these decisions, turn off your phone, leave it in your hotel room, and, if you want to follow your emails so you know what is happening, read them, but do not reply to them; you are on vacation. Give your staff the opportunity to lead, choose, decide and take control of the department. Let it be theirs while you are away.

Finally, get your proteges involved in the associations that represent the fire service provincially, nationally and internationally. At association events, these potential successors will make contacts with whom they can share and gain knowledge, learn how issues are solved in other departments and find a shoulder to cry on when things go bad. Remember, you are not alone; numerous people have gone through the same situations in other municipalities and they are more than willing to help you. Over the years I have learned more from peers than from any book or classroom.

It is a wonderful feeling when you set people free and watch what they can accomplish. That is the true purpose of a succession program – letting people learn and improve on what you have done in the past.

One of the greatest pleasures in life is watching young people grow into the leaders of the future. The purpose of a succession program is to support that growth.


Denis Pilon is the chief of the Swift Current Fire Department in Saskatchewan and is the chair of the CAFC’s resolutions, bylaws and constitution committee. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @DMPilon


Written by Doug Tennant
I did it twice the other day and I liked it. It was easy, somewhat fun and I did it in private, but I did not follow through; I hit the delete button and went back to work. I couldn’t follow through because one of my father’s adages – he served in the fire service for 40 years – screamed in my head while I composed the tweet: if you can’t say anything positive about someone then don’t say anything at all. So I hit the delete button. There’s a similar saying when it comes to snail mail; write the nasty letter, then put it in your desk drawer for a day and see if you still want to send it the next morning.

Social media is a powerful, instant and non-retrievable tool in our work and personal spheres. It is relatively easy and usually gratifying to tweet and post our thoughts, pictures and comments to the world. We know who sees our messages when they like them or retweet them, but perhaps just as importantly, we don’t know who is monitoring and seeing our messages. Indeed, we all have to realize that our on-duty and off-duty posts are subject to review, and can be tracked, searched and viewed by anyone, anywhere.

Social media is not a new forum. Facebook posts were being liked more than 10 years ago. Tweets were being retweeted eight years ago. There are now firefighters in the service who have never mailed a stamped envelope with a letter inside. In this digital age, it is easy to say or upload something we probably would not say or show to our grandmothers or our children. I’m not the ethics police or a behavioural consultant, but it seems to me that there should be more awareness of the proper use of social media among those in the fire hall. That awareness starts at the top and goes all the way down to the newest recruit.

The foremost aspect of your social media awareness starts with knowing whether your local government or fire service has a policy on the use of social media. Ensure you understand what the policy means to you and how it applies to you as a firefighter. Does it apply to you off duty? Are you sure? How does your provincial freedom-of-information law apply to what you post as an on-duty member of the fire department? You may think your conversation is private, however, it may become a part of the public record and your comments may actually be the property of the city/town. Be careful not to use social media to post information about an emergency to which you are responding and/or investigating.

Social media is a powerful tool for the fire service to use to disseminate timely messages to the public about fire safety, or important information during an emergency. Fire-service leaders can also use social media as a tool to get their messages out to duty crews. (This reminds me of the monthly VHS department-update videos some chiefs used to send out just a few short years ago, but I digress.)

Alternatively, social media can be harmful to a firefighter or a fire chief when it’s used inappropriately either on or off duty. Joseph Cohen-Lyons wrote in a November 2011 article published by the Public Sector Digest, that an inappropriate use of social media by employees is when the message “impacts the legitimate interests of their employer and affects their ability to perform their functions as public sector employees.”

Yes, you have freedom of expression, but if you think that what you say on social media is private and no one else’s business, you may want to think again. In November, an arbitrator upheld the dismissal of a Toronto firefighter because his off-duty Twitter comments were determined to be a serious misconduct. In this case, the firefighter was identifiable as a member of the Toronto fire service.

Using social media can be a fun and easy way to get an official fire-service message or personal thought out to the rest of the world, but with such power comes much responsibility related to its use.

According to the Toronto labour law firm Hicks Morley (www.hicksmorley.com), firefighters (full time or volunteer), need to be aware that:
  • it is the responsibility of firefighters of all ranks who use social media to understand the risks of usage, regardless of whether they think the comments are private;
  • that firefighters, as civil servants, may be held to a higher standard than other workers; and
  • that the employer may/should have a social media policy that governs firefighters’ social-media behaviour.

Share this information with your team, and remember, around the fire hall, at the fire department fish fry or while on social media – you lead as you are.


Doug Tennant is the fire chief in Deep River, Ont. Contact Doug at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


Written by Gord Schreiner
It is with mixed emotions that I start my 40th year in the fire service. On the one hand, I am so proud of the fire service in many ways. The service impacts many lives in a positive way. Over the years, I have met a lot of great people and I have made many lifelong friends. I am pleased with what I have accomplished to date. I love the fire service.

On the other hand, I am embarrassed by the very few bad apples that are out there in the fire service. Over the past few months, there have been a number of stories about chief officers behaving inappropriately. I, like many others, strongly believe that good leadership is vital to a healthy organization. If leaders of the organization are behaving poorly, the negative effects ripple through the entire organization. Some of these chiefs were bad characters to begin with and should never have been promoted. With this in mind, we, as chief officers, need to do our part to ensure that young staff members are taught the importance of ethics. We need to let them know that inappropriate behaviour is not accepted in our organizations.

Unfortunately, there have been so many stories lately about chief officers behaving badly that I think we could start a reality series titled Chiefs gone bad! There would be a lot of content. The episodes would include stories of chief officers making racist remarks, drinking and driving, drinking in public vehicles or at their fire stations, drug use, misuse of public vehicles, misuse of public funds, receiving gifts for spending public funds, inappropriate relationships, conflicts of interest, chief officers with fake degrees, chief officers with little to no formal training . . . need I go on?

Poor behaviour such as this is totally unacceptable; it’s shameful and gives the entire fire service a black eye. It is hard to believe these things happen. One would hope only the best would be promoted to chief-officer levels in the first place. If this is the fire service’s best, we had better get a handle on this situation quickly before it is too late and the reputation of the entire fire service suffers.

The problem of individuals’ behaviour affecting the reputation of the fire service, or any other profession, has been around forever. But with the reach of social media, stories are now shared much easier and faster than before. Make a mistake in the morning and it is possible that millions of people will know about it before the end of the day.

I know chief officers are just regular people, but we should still expect them to behave properly. As a chief officer, you have a duty to act appropriately. When you accept a position as a chief officer you have an obligation to be honest and ethical; anything less is unacceptable. If you can’t do this, get out now.

While 99 per cent of the chief officers out there are doing the right things right, the small percentage of bad chiefs are making us all look bad. One of the most important things in your life should be your reputation and the reputation of the organization you represent. Good or bad, your reputation is known by the people around you. You are accountable for yourself, no one else is. Do what is right and you should have no worries; do wrong and you could lose your job and your good reputation very quickly.

I believe all fire-service members can be a part of the solution by letting others know if their behaviour is unacceptable. (It would be nice if they could figure this out by themselves, but sadly, many can’t). Tell them their poor behaviour (and bad reputation) hurts us all. Annual surveys show that the fire service is one of the most trusted professions; this will surely change if we do not take the necessary steps to address this problem. It is time to clean house.

There are a lot of great people in the fire service who are ready to step up and make a positive difference. Let’s call bad apples out and let them know that their inappropriate behaviours are unacceptable. By doing so, you might help them correct their careers before it is too late, and you will help us all continue to make the fire service better; you may even help save lives.

I have a reputation of speaking up and saying what is on my mind and I plan to continue to do this until I retire in a few years. If I think something is wrong, I will say so. I ask that you do the same.


Gord Schreiner joined the fire service in 1975 and is a full-time fire chief in Comox, B.C., where he also manages the Comox Fire Training Centre. He is a structural protection specialist with the Office of the Fire Commissioner and worked at the 2010 Winter Olympics as a venue commander. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @comoxfire




Written by Lyle Quan
Over the years I have written quite a few columns on leadership styles and the benefits of each style. One style that I have always endorsed and tried to embrace is that of servant leadership.
Written by Chris Davison-Vanderburg
Teaching in the classroom is necessary for passing on knowledge to firefighters. But chances are that some of your firefighters grumble as they enter the room and cringe at the thought of reliving the educational nightmares of their youth, and for good reason.
Written by Douglas Tennant
Clara Hughes, Canadian Olympic cyclist and speed skater, came to my town during the summer and huge crowds came out to welcome her and listen to her speak. Hughes’ visit was a planned stop on Clara’s Big Ride, an annual bike ride across the country to encourage healthy conversations about mental illness – including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD? Isn’t that a severe mental illness for which only soldiers, police officers and paramedics are at risk? Me – suffer from traumatic events? I don’t think so. After all, I’m a firefighter. Yes, I still ride in the officer seat and wear a SCBA at calls, but I am tough. Firefighters don’t suffer from mental illness and we certainly aren’t affected by what we see, smell, hear, feel and otherwise sense at emergency scenes.

PTSD is defined by the Ontario government as an anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to a traumatic event or experience. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and intense feelings of fear or horror. Yes, firefighters do suffer from mental illness generally, and are exposed to traumatic events in particular. Some even suffer from PTSD, which not only affects them, but also affects their spouses, family and friends.

Take encouragement from Clara Hughes and many other Canadians who are taking the lead by acknowledging and discussing mental illness; it’s real, it’s in our fire stations and it affects all members of our fire-service families – those in the fire station and those who love and care for us. The anxiety and suffering of firefighters is not acceptable; it’s debilitating and affects our performance on the job – both career and volunteer. It affects our relationships, our mental health and also our physical health.

All firefighters need to be leaders when it comes to talking about mental illness. We can’t wait for others to pick up the mantle on this sensitive and growing issue. Indeed, some will deny that PTSD actually affects firefighters. People may say that firefighters signed up for it, that they are not forced to become firefighters, or that workplace claims by firefighters suffering from PTSD are simply cash grabs or  even organized scams.

Firefighters need to recognize that it’s cool to seek help when they are suffering, and not cool to keep it inside and let it fester and cause pain. It’s cool to talk about a traumatic event you experienced or what triggers your PTSD, and not cool to pretend that those feelings are not there. It’s cool to be vulnerable and let others into your private world, and not cool to put up walls and not share your inner feelings. It’s cool to talk with your spouse and children about your traumatic events or PTSD, and it’s not cool to keep your situation from those who are closest to you. It’s cool to talk to your doctor, pastor or someone you trust about your traumatic events or PTSD, and not cool to think you can handle it without professional help. It’s cool to seek medical help with your personal situation and not cool to self medicate with drugs or alcohol.

Unfortunately, the suffering of firefighters from traumatic events has become politicized. Governments, both municipal and provincial, and some vocal individuals, are concerned about the potential cost of presumptive workplace claims for PTSD by first responders, which are similar to claims made for presumptive cancer.

Let me be clear – I am not a medical professional; however, my personal experience is that PTSD in the fire service is real. Responding as a firefighter to horrific and gruesome scenes over the past 35 years has left its mark on me. The sights, feel, sounds, smells, and, indeed, the aura of an emergency scene affects me and impacts all of us. I have suffered for almost 30 years now following an incident that involved a car colliding with a snowplow. I was the first to arrive on scene as the driver lay dying and trapped inside his vehicle. The night terrors are the worst as they impact not only me but also my family. It is normal to be affected when someone you are holding dies; it is normal to be affected by the sight and smell of a mangled, burned body; it is normal to be affected as you gather up body parts at a vehicle collision. What is not normal is to keep your feelings to yourself.

Take the lead and make yourself vulnerable. Talk about your anxiety, fears, and triggers and, just as importantly, seek support and ask for help. Talk to your spouse, your fire service critical-incident stress team, your pastor, your family doctor. You lead as you are.

For more information on PTSD and support services, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association at www.cmha.ca



Doug Tennant is the fire chief in Deep River, Ont. Contact Doug at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


*Carousel photo from Flickr by Shona/Reikilass
Written by Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan
Scottish rugby player Nelson Henderson said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” This is what leaving a legacy is all about, and since our retirements from the fire-service, we truly understand the importance of leaving a leadership legacy upon which others can build.  

For fire-service leaders, legacy is all about planting leadership seeds within departments so that after the leaders have moved on, the seeds continue to grow. Remember, a leader’s legacy is not just what he or she did while in the fire department; it’s also what is left behind for others to build upon. Leadership is all about growing other leaders.  Imagine how gratifying it is for leaders to look back five or 10 years after leaving a fire department to see how their leadership direction took the department to new levels of success. To us, this is the true legacy of a fire chief.

One of the key challenges to leaving a solid foundation to build up is how to ensure that all staff members are not only trained and ready to do their jobs, but are also prepared for future leadership positions. How does a leader know who to help grow and prepare for the future? The simplest and probably the best answer is that leaders need to teach, mentor and prepare everyone to meet the future; by doing so, the best will rise to the top and demonstrate that they are able to meet future challenges.

There are five steps that may help fire-service leaders prepare future leaders.

Step 1: lay out the plan. No matter what the project is, there must be a plan in place for it to be successful; building leadership capacity is no different. We all know that leadership is more than time served. The leaders of tomorrow require education and qualifications that focus on people; soft skills such as building effective teams and mentoring and coaching sell the department’s vision and make firefighters feel as if they are a part of a team. So ask yourself: what is the plan? What do you want to accomplish and in what timespan?

Step 2: identify the existing leadership capacity. Every department has leadership and every department has leadership gaps. Preparing for the future means the fire chief and firefighters must communicate openly about the leadership plans for the department. Working collaboratively, which includes open and timely communication, gives everyone a connection with the plan and will help to inspire members to see it to fruition. Remember, a leader’s legacy cannot continue if it completely depends on his or her presence. Guiding the team and allowing team members to take the reins is part of building the momentum.

Step 3: be the team. During any phase of any plan, a leader must ensure all team members know and understand that they are important. It is critical to know the difference between being a part of a team and being the team. Success occurs only if firefighters feel they are part of the team that is building the future of the fire department. One person cannot do everything, but many hands lighten the load and more efficiently complete goals and objectives.

Step 4: celebrate successes. Take the time to celebrate accomplishments. We all make an effort to acknowledge when our kids win a ribbon or get an A on a test, but leaders sometimes forget that their staff need to hear that the department has successfully met a goal or worked through a challenge. So take the time to celebrate successful course completions because without celebrating the successes, it’s too easy to feel part of cold-hearted organization.

Step 5: empower others. When it comes to leadership, it is OK to empower others to grow and explore how they can fit into leadership roles. Leaders may be surprised what their staff can do if they know they are supported.

Lee Iacocca said, “If you really believe in what you are doing, you’ve got to persevere even when you run into obstacles.” When you are building your team and looking to the future to predict what kind of legacy you will leave as a fire chief or chief officer, know that there will be many obstacles and many setbacks that will test you and frustrate you. Persevere and believe in yourself and your team.

To us, leaving a legacy is one of the greatest things fire-service leaders can do. Leaving a legacy demonstrates to everyone that the leader was invested in the department. For leaders, a legacy is about what’s in it for the organization, the communities they service and, most importantly, their staff.


Les Karpluk is the retired fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. Lyle Quan is the retired fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. Contact Les at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and Lyle at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Follow Les on Twitter at @GenesisLes and Lyle at @LyleQuan


Written by Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan
Fire-service leaders have many responsibilities; developing talent in the fire hall is a responsibility that chiefs should take seriously given that one day all chief officers will move on to retirement or other opportunities. Leaving a solid foundation of internal talent is paramount to the stability and growth of the organization.

The level of talent demonstrated within the fire station is a good indication of the organization’s leadership. When firefighter talent appears absent or is lacking, it’s a strong indication that the leadership has either stalled out or, in some cases, is unable to keep up with the growth of the department. In cases such as these, the fire chief and senior officers need to regroup and change things.

There are various views on the subject of talent development, but one thing is certain: every fire department has talent, and it must be developed, otherwise the future looks grim and the community loses respect for the department.

Firefighter talent is a commodity that increases in value as it develops. This commodity improves the fire department, enhances public safety, increases firefighter professionalism and boosts morale, which is why talent development must be the focus of all fire-service leaders, regardless of the size of the department.

Many readers might believe that, by default, it is the fire chief’s responsibility to build department talent; we agree to a point, but only to a point.

Yes, it is the responsibility of the fire chief to acquire the resources to develop firefighter talent, and this is typically accomplished at budget time by presenting a carefully laid-out plan that identifies the short-, medium- and long-range goals for talent development. But, for the most part, this is where the chief’s job ends. Now it’s time for the real talent-builders to roll up their sleeves and do what is needed. In our opinion, the real talent-builders are the frontline officers. Let us explain.

Who is in the best position to know the skills, competencies, personalities and experiences of firefighters? The frontline supervisors. And who is in the best position to lead by example and set the bar high for talent development? The frontline supervisors. Frontline officers have more face time with the firefighters and therefore they are in a better position to understand individual strengths and weaknesses. Frontline officers can determine ways to best use firefighters’ strengths and minimize their weaknesses, which is, ultimately, building talent. Frontline officers are also in the best position to mentor and coach firefighters and to encourage them when they get stuck in a rut.

Building talent requires frontline supervisors to understand the importance of firefighter talent; they must lead by example and set the bar high for not only firefighters, but also for themselves. In other words, the frontline supervisors must continually take steps to better themselves. To lead by example, these officers must be the example; when it comes to training and education, frontline officers should be the first to sign up for the course. We cannot expect others to buy into talent development if the frontline supervisor doesn’t buy into it.

Building talent rests on the shoulders of every firefighter in the department; it’s a team effort. Who determines firefighters’ attitude toward building their own talent? You guessed it: the firefighters. Firefighters must value talent development and be active supporters of meeting department and/or industry standards. Firefighters may need to juggle their vacation periods to accommodate training, attend seminars on a weekend, or spend time doing homework in order to build their own talent. They need to have some investment in the game.

Building department talent can be a challenge as firefighters likely have their own opinions regarding talent-building priorities. Regardless of what comes first or what comes second, successful leaders realize it takes the combined effort of every person in the department to develop this precious commodity.

Basketball star Michael Jordan summarized this team effort quite nicely: “There are plenty of teams in every sport that have great players and never win titles. Most of the time, those players aren’t willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. The funny thing is, in the end, their unwillingness to sacrifice only makes individual goals more difficult to achieve. One thing I believe to the fullest is that if you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves. Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”

It isn’t a matter of wanting to build department talent; rather, it is a matter of making it happen. We recommend you take steps to make it happen sooner rather than later.


Les Karpluk is the retired fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. Lyle Quan is the retired fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. Contact Les at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and Lyle at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Follow Les on Twitter at @GenesisLes and Lyle at @LyleQuan


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