In January, 2015, I became the Fire Chief of the Calgary Fire Department (CFD). It is both an efficient, well-run organization and one existing in an environment of increasing diversity and seemingly endless change. What then, is required to be an effective leader in such circumstances?
Although I have been with the CFD for 23 years and a deputy chief for much of that time, when I became Fire Chief, I felt that my first task was to talk to the members, listen to their concerns and ideas and learn about what makes them proud to be a CFD member, what matters to them and what, if any, changes should be made to ensure that ours is a healthy, safe, and supportive work environment for all members. This experience has been illuminating and rewarding. It has reinforced my confidence in the strengths of the paramilitary culture of the fire service. We form close-knit teams where we rely heavily on one another and work together to serve our community. It has also confirmed that we have a great deal of work to do to recognize and embrace diversity within our organization and to support the psychological health and safety of our members.
The issue of diversity and inclusion has gained momentum, not only in the CFD, but in the larger corporation of The City of Calgary. It is so important that I have assigned a deputy chief to implement a strategy to increase and support diversity among our members. The more commonly thought of elements of diversity include gender, skin colour, race, ethnicity, abilities, religion and sexual orientation. There are others, however, such as personality, work style, work status, communication style and learning preferences. Moving toward a culture that accepts and supports individuals for the ways in which they are similar to us as well as the ways in which they are different will be no small feat. Indeed, it flies in the face of a tradition of training recruits to adapt their behaviour to match that of the firefighters senior to them. We all wear the same uniform and we must act as one at the scene of an incident but we can no longer require that members suppress their individuality, or face exclusion in the station.
Why is this important? First, because our behaviour must align with the CFD values: pride, professionalism, teamwork and respect. All of our members should be able to be proud, not only that they wear the uniform but of everything they bring to the job. They should know that at work, they will be treated as a valued member of the team. They should come to work prepared to treat their fellow firefighters with respect and know that they will be treated in kind.
Second, it is important because we cannot fully serve our community unless it can see itself reflected in our membership. Presently the CFD membership is primarily Caucasian males. A small percentage of our uniformed members are female and an even smaller number belong to a visible minority. This limits our ability to relate to citizens as sensitively as we could and it sends a message to many youth that the fire service is not a viable career choice for them. To change this, the CFD must become a workplace that is welcoming and safe for everyone.
Third, we are now living in a world that is constantly connected through electronic media. Where we once could prevent information about the dysfunctional elements of our culture from becoming public, we are now subject to constant scrutiny. Our community has high expectations for our behaviour and we have to be seen to be living up to them.
Finally, a culture that respects and embraces diversity supports psychological health and safety. We are all too familiar with the stories of firefighters who struggle with the psychological injuries they experience as a result of the traumatic events they witness. Many face this struggle alone, afraid that they will be seen as weak, shunned by their peers and perhaps passed over for promotion if they seek help. Building a culture that acknowledges that everyone experiences trauma differently, that respects willingness to seek help and that supports its members while they work their way back to full
health may be the single most important thing we, as leaders can do to protect our members.
This is a wonderful and a challenging time to be a leader in the fire service. We are constantly facing changes within our organizations and in the expectations and demands of the citizens we serve. The men and women who come to work everyday to protect the lives and property of their communities are a great source of pride. As the Fire Chief in Calgary, I feel that pride, along with a great responsibility to ensure that the members of my department come to work knowing that they will be respected not only for the job that they do but for the person they are. To that end, I believe that the best thing I can do is to lead by example and trust that every member in the CFD will do the same.
For more information, go to www.calgary.ca/CSPS/Fire