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Company Officer Leadership: Navigating Inevitable Change

A few years ago, Fire Chief and then IAFC President Jack Parow stated that the fire service saw 50 years of change between 1950 and 2000 and another 50 years of change between 2000 and 2010 and that we should expect another 50 years of change between 2010 and 2015.

The economy, changing community demographics and technological advances are forcing change. Regardless of the source, there's no doubt that change is accelerating into a rapid and powerful current.

As the future leaders of the fire service, we must become proficient in navigating these currents of change.

When I think about navigating the constant flow of change we see in the fire service, I remember the many summers I spent salmon fishing in the waters where the mighty Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. Called the Columbia Bar, it's one of the wildest stretches of water in the world; those who fail to regard the awesome power of the swirling water often become its victims.

Change and the resistance to change are much like the river and the ocean. The bar is calm and flow is fast when the river and the tide run in the same direction. When we accept change—even embrace it—it flows smoothly and rapidly.

The bar is treacherous when the river flows out and the tide flows in. The water is chaotic and swirls without direction. It takes a great deal of energy to resist change and the result is often confusion and chaos.

Firefighters have a reputation for resisting change: "200 years of tradition unhampered by progress." We've all seen members who resist change at all costs, spending large amounts of time and energy fighting the inevitable. But in reality, we probably do a better job dealing with change than most occupations due to our ability to adapt to rapidly changing emergency scenes.

The company officer's role in navigating change is two-fold. First, we have to learn to accept change personally, and then, we have to be able to help our peers and those under our supervision. Neither of these are easy tasks, but understanding what fuels our resistance to change is an important first step towards acceptance.

Identify Fear

The experts will tell us that resistance to change is actually an emotional response based on our own fear. Fear of the unknown, inadequacy or losing control can all fuel strong emotional responses that lead to resisting change.

Ask yourself if your resistance to change has anything to do with your own fears. If you're helping others navigate through change, ask them the same question.


Unfortunately, even the best changes are often not accompanied by an explanation. Resistance to change will likely be reduced when we see the whole picture.

Don't be afraid to respectfully ask up your chain of command why a change is occurring so you can better help facilitate the change and reduce resistance. If you're in the position to make changes, be sure to include the reasons why making this change is important.

Find the Bright Side

It's unrealistic to believe that fire service leaders make changes for the sake of change. Change is typically made to address a specific problem, make improvements to existing processes, reduce costs or enhance safety.

Looking for the positives that will result from a change to help speed its acceptance.

Create Change

One of the best ways to accept change is to be part of the team that identifies and implements changes in your organization. Volunteering for committees and projects is a great way to be a part of the change that's taking place in your department.

Place yourself in a position to drive change.

Change is a part of life; it's inevitable and will continue no matter how hard we try to resist. Learning to navigate changes will help ensure our personal and organizational survival.

Otherwise, we're likely to be swept away by the ever-strengthening currents of change.

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