Between Alarms: October 2018

How to turn your fire hall around
Arjuna George
September 17, 2018
Written by Arjuna George
What are the key ingredients to an effective and cohesive fire department? It cannot be left to the sole responsibility of the fire chiefs to lead the organization. It really comes down to effective leadership of every member, on every level.  

This column is based off the leadership lessons of retired U.S. Navy Captain David Marquet, as he outlines in his best-selling book, Turn the Ship Around!

Leadership as we know it, is normally based off the leader-follower concept, where the top of the organization leads the group and everyone else below just follows along. This has worked for decades, but are there more radical ways to view leadership?   

In Marquet’s book, he writes about how he successfully turned around his failing, low-morale submarine crew into a highly effective team by empowering the crew to be leader-leaders.  

Our current leader-follower model can often instill low passion and poor ownership. With a slight tweak and a rewire, our department leaders can turn it all around and create inspiring fire departments.

 Marquet describes leadership as being 20 per cent knowledge and 80 per cent behaviour. He writes about the three core principles he used to improve the behaviour of his team, which are control, competence and clarity.

To improve the team and turn your fire hall around, consider how much and what type of control you have and currently give. Does your organization take control or give control? One of the key adjustments Marquet made was to delegate control or decision-making as much as possible.

He turned the one-way, top-down briefings into more of a conversation where members felt it was okay to ask questions and provide feedback. He also suggests certifying the members rather than holding passive-style meetings. By certifying, you challenge the crews and get them to ask questions, come prepared, participate and be active in the process.

This paradigm shift doesn’t eliminate fire ground command and control. When a decision must be made under emergency situations, a decision must be made. But when there is time for discussion and more input, better solutions will arise.

By giving up control and distributing it to your officers and firefighters, you provide them with the decision-making power exactly where the information is.

Marquet also changed the crew’s vocabulary to an intent-based leadership tone with words like, “I intend to,” versus phrases like, “Should I?” and, “Permission to,” or simply standing back and waiting for direction.

Another of his keys to success was to eliminate top-down monitoring. Provide the crew with the tools and knowledge to follow through while providing them the freedom to make decisions.

Another principle of control is to specify the goals and expectations, but not the methods. Resist the urge to provide immediate solutions.

The second pillar to his leader-leader model is competence. You can’t make the switch to leader-leader and expect results if the members are not technically competent. The crew must be willing to be learners by taking deliberate action.

Embrace excellence by not avoiding failure. Marquet suggests that the mechanism to take deliberate action is to pause, vocalize, or gesture what is about to happen. This simple process slows down the action only briefly, but long enough to ensure the decision is sound and safe.

The third principle of Marquet’s system is clarity. By repeating the message and providing clear communications on the direction and path the department is going is critical. This step is really that simple. Communicate your vision, demonstrate a true drive for excellence and trust in the organization and repeat.

Marquet built a highly effective team by encouraging a questioning attitude, empowering his team to make solid decisions while rewarding them with trust and respect. He chose immediate recognition as a key contributor to reinforce the behaviours he was promoting.

Marquet describes how to rewire your organization’s health by changing and rewriting the genetic code.

This move to leader-leader is a bold one and doesn’t happen overnight. It requires hard work and a commitment to excellence.

Marquet tested several methods to alter the new way of thinking, but the one that worked was simply living it. By changing his own behaviours, the organization changed its thinking too.

Divesting control doesn’t eliminate the importance of good officers and great chiefs. It simply strengthens the leadership throughout.


Arjuna George is chief of Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in B.C. He has served on the department since 1997. Contact Arjuna at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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