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Aug. 12, 2014, Prince Albert, Sask. - I recently had breakfast with Nipawin, Sask., Fire Chief Brian Starkell. We try to meet whenever he is in Prince Albert and it is always great talking to Chief Starkell about his department.

August 12, 2014 
By Les Karpluk

Aug. 12, 2014, Prince Albert, Sask. – I recently had breakfast with Nipawin, Sask., Fire Chief Brian Starkell. We try to meet whenever he is in Prince Albert and it is always great talking to Chief Starkell about his department. In 2012 I was fortunate enough to work with Chief Starkell and his great group of paid, on-call firefighters to write the department’s strategic plan.

During our breakfast meeting, it was exciting to hear how many of the strategic goals were being met. At the end of the meeting, Chief Starkell handed me a beautiful keepsake. I was caught off guard and Chief Starkell stated that his department’s members wanted to thank me for working with them and being a part of their team. What a class act and what a great department. A big thank-you to Chief Starkell and his great team of firefighters.

Leadership is always something that comes up in conversations with firefighters and chief officers and one thing is certain – it isn’t as easy at it looks.

The pressures faced by today’s fire-service leaders from their municipalities and firefighters are increasing; do more with less, keep your firefighters happy, reduce overtime costs and operational and capital expenditures, ensure that firefighters are adequately protected and trained and . . . just add whatever you are facing today into this sentence. The list really does go on and on.


The point is that existing fire-service leaders are challenged to lead at times. It really doesn’t matter if you come from a volunteer, paid, on-call or full-time department, there are expectations to deliver a level of service and a level of professionalism. More on this later.

In order to be successful, today’s fire-service leaders must grow their craft through daily actions, training and by being committed learners. They must make it a point to educate and train themselves, and they must recognize that doing so is an investment in themselves and the department. When it comes to education and training, they must lead by example. Plain and simple!

Sincere and authentic leaders know they aren’t perfect and they are the first to admit that they, too, make mistakes. They recognize that failure is a part of being a successful leader and even though it is painful at first, it heals and they get stronger from the experience. Every successful leader I know has experienced struggles, emotional highs and lows and failures. Yet, they keep plugging away. I suspect this is what makes them successful.

These leaders take responsibility for their mistakes; they don’t run around like kids on the playground looking for attention or pointing fingers to blame another person when things go wrong. As retired Chief Denis Rubin suggests, when things go wrong, “Firefighter-up, by admitting the mistake and take the consequences that you have earned.”

Back to the expectations to deliver a level of service and a level of professionalism.

A quick look at 2013 U.S. firefighter fatalities ( should strike a nerve with every reader. We are delivering a service and it’s costing lives. It’s not a secret that being a firefighter is dangerous, but one really has to ask why we are losing firefighters responding to and returning from incidents. Drill down some more into the NFPA’s 2013 fatality report report and you see that firefighters who died were either driving department vehicles or their private vehicles, lost control and paid the ultimate price. Why?

This is just one example and when you read the 2013 firefighter fatality report you may be asking yourself some other questions.

What about the challenge to deliver a professional service? It’s reality for the volunteer department and the full time career department. The public generally has no idea of the training required to be a firefighter. People just expect that the red truck comes with firefighters and they put out the fire. We all know this is far from the truth, but there is a cost to deliver a professional and trained service. And when I say cost, it should mean financial and not lives.

I hate to say this, but there are many volunteer fire departments that are using sub-par equipment and PPE. The fire department leadership just isn’t getting the support they need and, to no one’s surprise, the firefighters still do what they can to deliver some type of service. I wonder if this is contributing to some of the injuries and line-of-duty deaths we read about every year?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating an open cheque book for every fire department request, but I do believe that every fire department should have a plan in place for equipment and apparatus acquisitions.

With the many challenges to deliver a level of service and professionalism, there are still some naysayers in communities and departments who seem to focus on how things can’t work or why an idea is bad. After all, you can’t expect firefighters of a volunteer department to strive to meet the NFPA 1001 qualifications, can you?

Ah yes, the naysayers are generally the first to point out the mistakes of others and will go to great lengths to try to convince others why new ideas are wrong. Why should a department implement minimum requirements for driving fire department vehicles or apparatus?

I’m sure I’ve made my point. 

One thing is certain: all firefighters are responsible for doing their part to be a professional and to make things safer. It’s time to stop making excuses and start doing our part to make sure the LODDs are eliminated.

Being a leader in the fire service is not an easy task. It requires grit, confidence and thick skin, and demands your focus to make the profession safer.

Les Karpluk is the retired fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. He is a graduate of the Lakeland College Bachelor of Business in Emergency Services program and Dalhousie University’s Fire Administration and Fire Service Leadership programs. Follow Les on Twitter at @GenesisLes

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