Fire Fighting in Canada

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Volunteer Vision: November 2009

I have taken a few courses on leadership, received a couple of diplomas and read lots of books on the subject. I have also watched great leaders at work. I know that some people seem to be born with the skills needed to be a great leader, some have learned how to be a leader, and others will never learn.

November 6, 2009
By Brad Patton

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I have taken a few courses on leadership, received a couple of diplomas and read lots of books on the subject. I have also watched great leaders at work. I know that some people seem to be born with the skills needed to be a great leader, some have learned how to be a leader, and others will never learn.

I believe I might be somewhere in the middle of that and as I’m still learning, there might be some hope for me yet. I thought I could pass on what I have learned thus far and perhaps some of you could forward what you have learned to help me along with my journey (not that there has ever been a shortage of people telling me I still have a lot to learn). I might as well live up to the fact that I am a manager and have good skills in that department. However, leadership and management are very different concepts.

Managing is what a lot of fire chiefs, myself included, do regularly. We take a group of people, some trucks and equipment and figure out the best way to use them to meet the objectives given. We put out fires, extricate people from cars, deliver first aid, participate in training, work within budgets, et cetera. Being a good manager is not easy. I consider management a two-step process. Step one: Getting it all organized. This includes putting the right people and the right equipment together so that they safely and efficiently get the job done. In our business of managing volunteer firefighters it might take three to five years to complete step one. Then comes step two: The caretaker. All you have to do is keep the wheels greased and do some fine tuning once in a while to keep step one working efficiently.

Leadership, on the other hand, is far more complex. I define leadership as the ability to inspire people to go beyond what is expected or acceptable. You can tell if a fire department, a fire station or even a crew has good leadership just by watching; the morale is high, equipment is well cared for regardless of its age or use, and training is done professionally and with enthusiasm. There is also a higher regard for detail and everyone seems to have a better understanding of the “big picture”. The “why” we do what we do and “how” we do it reflects on our department and the community. That is good leadership, which goes well beyond good management.

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So here are some basic rules for leadership that I am personally working on.

1) If you want to be a good leader, always remember people are watching and listening to you 24/7. If you are a chief, senior officer, captain or firefighter and you live in a town that has a population of between five and to 45,000, you will be recognized.

2) Many residents will know your name, years of service and rank, and they will be watching and judging you. If you want to be a good leader you need to understand and accept how people see you. How others judge you will reflect greatly on how your ideas are accepted, how people will trust you and how much financial support they will provide for budgets. Please do not take what I’ve said to mean you should be phoney in any way; rest assured people will see right through that.

3) Stand tall, be a good listener, be positive, don’t give snap answers just to appear smarter, and care about other people first.

4) Never stop learning about the job, especially the parts you don’t like such as budgets, report writing, committee or council meetings and members.

5) Be very careful of whom you trust. It’s all too easy to have a bad day or week then go have a few drinks and unload to someone, only to find out a short time later that what you said is now in the fire halls or on the street. You are then left to a lot of cleanup work to right the wrongs that should have remained unsaid.

6) Use your computer to get assistance from associations or your peers. In this electronic age you’re never alone.

Presently, I am working on a report regarding turnover in the volunteer / part-time fire departments and have asked the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs to send three short questions out to its  hip:

1) How many volunteer firefighters are in your department?

2) How often does your department hire new volunteer firefighters?

3) On average, how many years will a volunteer firefighter stay with your department?

In one day I received 55 replies and am pleased to report that at press time they are still coming in.

In short, to be a good leader you have to care for the membership and your community, be honest, be cautious and own up to any mistakes you make. Most importantly, never stop learning.


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