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Between Alarms: April 2019


March 14, 2019
By Arjuna George

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Training should be an everyday thing and part of the daily work culture of firefighters and fire departments. The concept and inspiration for this column comes from Canadian writer Doug Griffiths

The concept and inspiration for this column comes from Canadian writer Doug Griffiths, who authored 13 Ways to Kill Your Community. His interesting short read provides ideas on how to build a healthy community by pointing out key issues that, if neglected and ignored, will destroy communities.  

This concept of building a healthy community got me thinking how it could transfer over to our fire service. As in the book, this column also describes concepts that we shouldn’t do and must avoid at all costs.

Many of the same challenges we face in our home communities can also do the same damage and erode our fire departments. This column will lay out 13 ways on how to kill your fire department in an effort to spotlight issues so that firefighters can address these proactively, thus crafting a kill-proof fire service.

The following 13 ways to kill your fire department are my top areas that, if ignored, will aid in the collapse or dysfunction of your fire service. This list could be doubled, tripled, but the following make my top 13:

Don’t be transparent and open to all: One of the easiest ways to kill your organization is to be secretive and non-disclosing. If you want to save your department from a downward spiral to failure, be honest, open and totally transparent. Building transparency and open dialogue is the quickest way to building trust internally and externally.

Don’t communicate: Another fail-safe method to destroy the membership and trust within our community is with lack of communication. In today’s world of instant gratification, communications have never been so critical. Our organizational success hinges on open and respectful communications. The public also expects timely, transparent and useful information. The fire service plays a critical role in public communications and awareness.

Don’t respect every level within the department and don’t respect those we serve: This is a sure-fire way to kill your personal career and the fire department. The fire service should be the pinnacle of community leaders demonstrating respect to all. To avoid killing your career and the service, respect all, from the newest recruit to the top administration and, of course, every single person we come across in our community.

Put your feet up and don’t train: Training is for recruits only and not for those who have been in the service for years. If you have this attitude it is a sure way to murder your department’s culture. Training is the backbone of what we do. If we are not constantly training, how can the public have any trust in us when they call? Training should be an everyday thing and part of our daily work culture. The day you say, ‘We don’t need to train,’ is the day you should consider another job. If you don’t train and are not disciplined enough to commit to continuous improvement, you will kill the faith the community has in us and, at the same time, erode the passion in others around you. Train as if your life depends on it because it could kill you and your department.

Talk more than you listen: Talking without listening is an easy way to kill your community trust and faith within. To turn this around, consider listening, but true listening with intent. Listen to the public, their concerns as well as their appreciation. We are servants to the public. We are here for them. If you want to kill your fire department, don’t listen. Sit back and do your own thing in a silo, the public won’t mind.

Stay away from social media: Social media is scary and will ruin your fire department. That’s not a good way to embrace social media. Social media is a super powerhouse for the fire service if used correctly. Social media is a necessity in today’s instant information age. Ensure your fire department has a strong social media presence so that you can demonstrate your transparency, your communication, your respect, your training, and how you listen. If you want your department to fade away slowly, avoid social media altogether. Ban the use, avoid putting yourself out there, and don’t promote all the good things we do. Those are all super easy ways to kill your image and trust.

Make sure you hire all the same kind of people: The last thing you want to do is have a department that is diverse and multi-talented, said nobody. By embracing a diverse and inclusive organization, you have the potential to reach so many more candidates and truly represent those we serve.

Grow complacent: This is a super easy way to slowly rot away your organization, leading to a slow, painful death. Grow complacent and live each day status quo. If you think your skills are perfect, great. Sit back and let the rust build up. To combat the death of your fire department, it is critical to not accept complacency, and to continually challenge the status quo. Our environment around us is changing at lightning speed. Our only method to survive is to adapt and distill pride in our trade. Complacency kills firefighters on the fire ground and kills community trust.

Don’t plan for the future: It’s better to be reactive than proactive. That is not a good attitude to have towards preparing for future needs and expectations of our communities. Organizations must plan for the future and adapt to a changing world. Technology, climate and the global economy all affect how we will operate in the future. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Refrain from trusting anyone: If you want to kill your organization, avoid trusting your people at all cost. Trust is the foundation for any healthy department and takes hard work to build, but can be destroyed with only a few bad decisions. Manufacturing trust must be a priority for all members. Trust within the organization and trust within our community is the heartbeat that will keep your fire department alive and well.

Put little effort into your membership: Make every effort not to build relationships with your fellow firefighters or community partners. You should make every effort to celebrate the success of our firefighters as well as our communities. To truly thrive, taking care of our people, your brothers and sisters, is critical to organizational health. Ensure you put hard work into recruitment and retention and work diligently to hire only the best.

Don’t engage with the public: This is a super easy way to kill your department. Just keep the public in the dark and don’t interact with them. This tactic will obviously lead to low community support and trust. Every single interaction we have with the public should be considered an opportunity. Engage your community with all aspects of fire and life safety, making fire prevention and awareness a daily conversation. Be the smiling, compassionate face and build strong, lasting relationships.

Whatever you do, don’t discuss mental health and self-care: The last thing we want to do as an organization is take care of each other and talk about mental health Hopefully, reading this alone gives you the chills. It should. We are seeing momentum build, but we all need to continue the culture change of taking care of one another and fostering a culture of acceptance, compassion and comfort, talking about our mental health. Let’s be community leaders when it comes to mental health and take a lead role in killing the stigma and make mental health conversations a daily occurrence. Let’s find ways to support our firefighters and their families so they can continue to be strong and continue to serve our communities. And, don’t forget about yourself too. Self-care is critical to keeping your organization alive and well.

A bonus suggestion to kill your fire department is don’t do your job. As public safety servants, our sole job is to help people in need with compassion and professionalism. The fire service is dangerous business. If we are not highly-skilled, ready and competent, we are not doing our job. Every job on the fire ground plays an important role in the successful outcome of an emergency. Treat every position, every person with respect and do your job.

You may notice that all the areas of concern I identified had nothing to do with actually fighting fires, and all to do with activities between alarms. I hope, as you contemplate each of these 13-plus ways to kill your fire department, it sparks some thought on how to ignite your organization’s health and to future-proof your department, keeping it alive and thriving.


Arjuna George is chief of Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in B.C. He has served on the department since 1997. Contact Arjuna at ageorge@saltspringfire.com.


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