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Straight Talk: February 2014

More than 296,000 results in one-quarter of a second; without a wholesome review but only a scan of the top-50 results, I am confident in saying that more than 90 per cent of the hits were fire-service related, with the balance being other paramilitary or military organizations.

February 10, 2014
By Kevin Foster

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More than 296,000 results in one-quarter of a second; without a wholesome review but only a scan of the top-50 results, I am confident in saying that more than 90 per cent of the hits were fire-service related, with the balance being other paramilitary or military organizations. What was the query? “Years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” The fire service continues to use this phrase and others use it about the fire service. 

Unfortunately the fire service perpetuates the use of this phrase, and, as the saying goes, perception is reality; if it is what we perceive and promulgate, then others will believe it.

Certainly, there are components of our business that have remained static over many years – such as water as a primary extinguishing agent – but there are many areas in which the fire service has been progressive.

Traditions are those beliefs, customs or activities that are handed from generation to generation and have special significance. So I ask, then, what special significance is necessary to establish a fire-service tradition? Departments need to determine the traditions for their members, embrace them and, most of all, tell new recruits why they are important and explain their significance. A badge-pinning ceremony for new recruits, the presentation of service awards, helmet presentations when members are promoted or retire can be traditions. Helping community members in a time of need is a tradition, not the manner in which we help them; the pumper or engine always being the first truck out of the station isn’t a tradition but rather an operational decision for effectiveness or efficiency and is subject to change.

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There – I said the dreaded word. Change is and has been happening for the betterment of safety in our communities and for firefighters. Consider that in the last 25 years we have seen technological improvements (those are other words for change) in trucks, equipment, BA, and personal protective equipment, all for the protection of firefighters. Building and fire codes are reviewed regularly and are revised to include additional safety measures such as smoke alarms in sleeping rooms – a change that has been adopted in Newfoundland and Labrador – or increased fines and penalties for non-compliance, which is being proposed in Manitoba. Many of these changes have occurred with little fire-service input, driven by others such as manufacturers and standards agencies. But what about organizational change?

Humans are naturally creatures of habit and typically do not embrace change. But it is imperative that the fire service adapt to the changes in and expectations of our communities. There are many examples of businesses that have struggled, restructured or, in fact, dissolved when they became complacent about their success and failed to keep on top of the changes impacting their industries. Only those operations that have been flexible and have adapted to their customers’ changing needs have survived.

We have a bias or preference for things as they exist, sometimes pro and sometimes con; therefore, significant organizational change must be managed in order for it to be successfully implemented and sustained. Change for the sake of change is not helpful or sustainable, no matter how much effort is put into it.

Change is a process that needs a champion. Be that champion. Begin with an analysis of opportunities for change; conduct an environmental scan of your community and your department. Do they complement each other? As your community has grown and the demographics have changed, new buildings have been built, new building materials have been used, built-up areas have been expanded and new risks have developed. Has your department kept pace, or do you do the things the same way you did 25 years ago? Do you continue to focus most of your department’s energy on suppression and rescue? It is time to put equal or greater emphasis on public education and code enforcement.

There are many different change models; select one that best suits you and can be applied to help facilitate the change you desire. Don’t allow traditions to encumber growth, development and changes that will better protect our communities.

Years of tradition need not impede progress; maintain traditions but change the bias among your members toward doing things a certain way just because that’s the way things have always been done.


Kevin Foster is in his 25th year in the fire service, having begun as a volunteer firefighter in East Gwillimbury in 1987. Foster was appointed to his current position as the chief with the Midland Fire Department in November 2001. Foster is a past president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. Contact him at kfoster@midland.ca and follow him on twitter at @midlanddfsem


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