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


Written by Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan
We can’t help but reflect on our careers, the adventures we have enjoyed and how we have been privileged to serve our communities.
Written by Douglas Tennant
Public safety is paramount in our business. Indeed, public safety is not just for the public, it also includes safety for those who provide emergency services to the public.
Written by Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan
It is absolutely amazing that we are in our fourth year of writing these joint columns for Fire Fighting in Canada.
Written by Douglas Tennant
You lead as you are. I learned this adage from a dear friend and mentor of mine – retired Cambridge, Ont., fire chief Terry Allen.
Fire Fighting in Canada editor Laura King sat down with Volunteer Vision columnists Tom DeSorcy, the fire chief in Hope, B.C., and Vince MacKenzie, the chief in Grand Fall-Windsor, N.L., to get a coast-to-coast perspective on the Canadian fire service.
Written by Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan
We have had the pleasure of writing leadership columns for Fire Fighting in Canada since 2010.
Written by Stephen Gamble President, CAFC
Welcome to the first edition of what we hope will be a long and prosperous partnership between the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) and Annex Business Media/Fire Fighting in Canada
Written by Timothy Pley
Many chiefs feel caught between opposing forces: on one side are fiscal pressures, including the conflict of downward pressure on budgets versus increasing service delivery costs; on the other side is the demand for sustained or increased delivery of fire-protection services.
Written by Lyle Quan
Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and exist at all levels within an organization. When I want to learn more about how to be a good leader, I look beyond the fire service.
Written by Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan
Mistakes: we all make them. Mistakes are part of life and learning from them contributes to our growth.
Written by Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan
Although Les and I have known each other for only about 10 years, we have the same passion and drive to make things better; this became clear during our university studies and joint speaking engagements, and is evident today in our leadership columns.
Written by Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan
Our intention has always been to bring forward ideas that stimulate readers to think about leadership from a new perspective.
Written by Tom Bremner
Over the last decade the fire service has addressed the same issues over and over. Many of these issues have been around for years – health and wellness, budgeting, safety, inter-agency communication, recruiting, a creative yet realistic future vision.
Written by Timothy Pley
We have all experienced the frustration of identifying a need for change or improvement, but not having the rank or authority to make that change.
Written by Lyle Quan
Books can help shape who we are, prompt us to re-evaluate what we stand for, and make us consider how we can become better at what we do.
Written by Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan
We have written several columns related to succession planning and mentoring, but we fear that some chief officers still don’t understand or embrace what we are trying to promote (and practise) in our departments,

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