Volunteers
Written by Vince Mackenzie
Being a volunteer fire chief in a small community certainly comes with an unconventional lifestyle. Whether the chief is volunteer or a career chief of a volunteer/composite department, to say the job is challenging most days is an understatement.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
Being the chief officer in a fire department comes with its own set of challenges and rewards, which are not exactly equal in proportion. Yet when the rewards come, they often outweigh the challenges tenfold.
Written by Vince Mackenzie
As volunteer firefighters, we rarely stop to think and analyze the culture in our fire departments. While every department has a culture, these cultures can vary from virtuous and healthy to dysfunctional and vicious.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
In spite of 33 years in fire, I’ve started to experience some revelations in just the last several months. I think it all started when I wasn’t paged for a structure fire. I awoke that morning to learn about the call and find out that the crew handled it without me.
Written by Maria Church
Look around at the faces during your next station training night. That guy – how long has he been here? And him – is he close to retirement? Are there any new faces? How many are women, or represent visible minorities?
Written by Vince Mackenzie
Social interaction is vitally important to the professional atmosphere in fire stations. Morale, being a result of good social interactions, is crucial to a successful and happy workplace. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at your own department. How well would your department operate if people did not get along?
Written by Tom DeSorcy
Change has taken over in our fire services, and I suspect we experience more of it today than we did in years past. While it’s not uncommon to learn new ways to fight fire with new techniques and equipment, the greater change is happening to personnel.
Written by Vince Mackenzie
In my November column, I discussed firefighter recruitment and the effects of the image projected to potential candidates by you and members of your department.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
By now all firefighters are aware of the benefits of social media and many of us are proficient on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. I think it’s time to discuss the risks and hazards associated with social media and what I consider a somewhat disturbing trend in its use.
Written by Vince Mackenzie
We all volunteered to become firefighters for a multitude of reasons, and we all have stories about why we chose to help our fire departments. We accept the fact that the role of a volunteer firefighter has changed and includes fighting fires and answering emergency calls for everything from medical calls to hazmat incidents.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
Have you ever heard a member of your crew say, “This is not what I signed up for”?
Written by Vince MacKenzie
The recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters is critical to the successful and efficient operation of a volunteer or composite fire department.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
My life has been built around philosophies – I try to treat people as I wish to be treated and I constantly tell myself that any problems I might have are really not as important to most others.
Written by Vince MacKenzie
My daughter graduated high school in June and, like most parents, I was a proud member of the audience for the ceremony.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
Too often I’ve heard that things are just not the same as they were back in the day. In fact, I’ve caught myself saying that on more than one occasion. I suppose that comes with age and, in the fire service, it’s always easy to compare the way things are with the way things used to be. Our world is constantly changing and, at times, it’s hard to keep up.    
Written by Vince MacKenzie
My colleague, Tom DeSorcy, wrote in March about public perceptions of leadership positions in volunteer fire departments. I think Tom’s analogy of busy fires chiefs who appear calm on the outside but, like ducks, paddle furiously under the surface to keep things running smoothly, was spot on.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
It was just a matter of time before this column lent itself to a wildlife analogy – at least considering the two animals that write it. (Sorry Vince, I couldn’t resist.) I’d like to share some thoughts on leadership and public perception in relation to the animal kingdom. Do I detect an eyebrow or two being raised at this point?

You might think leadership is analogous to the behaviour of a stately lion or another dominant animal but no, this is a leadership analogy based on a duck. That’s right, the lowly, mild-mannered waterfowl that populate lakes and waterways. While you might think I’m a little daffy (pardon the pun), I’m quite serious. Allow me to explain.

The way we, as chief officers and leaders in our community, present ourselves in the public eye is paramount to the trust that others have in us and in our abilities. Staying positive no matter the situation and projecting an air of control carries chief officers a long way with the public, the media and your firefighters.

As with a lot of fire chiefs in volunteer departments, I don’t have any staff. My office is in the municipal hall so I frequently interact with people who don’t work directly for me. Being in a small community, I take on more roles than just that of the fire chief; I manage our website, do administration and voice narration for our phone system, and act as an tech liaison for computer troubles, all the while maintaining a host of Twitter feeds and Facebook pages.

Often I take it upon myself to inject a positive attitude to my work environment. If someone is having a bad day, I only turn it up a notch. My first thought is “Sorry but you’re not bringing me down,” but in reality I’m just trying to demonstrate perspective.  One of my frequent lines is “And how many people died as a result of this incident?” That kind of brings those turning molehills into mountains down to earth. Perspective quickly turns into the realization that things are being blown out of proportion and, hopefully, the rest of the person’s day goes a lot more smoothly.

This example illustrates my attitude toward most things. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place to show emotion and concern, but if what is going on inside me doesn’t concern those around me, then I won’t bring it up – especially if it would bring them down.

Here’s where the duck comes in. To me, having an air of confidence and control shows balance in your world; a duck is literally living life in the balance whenever it is floating on the water. Many of you have probably heard this: the part of the duck you see on top of the water – the calm, cool collected version – is how people see you and what you project to the outside world. What happens on the inside, or in the duck’s case, below the waterline, is not quite as serene. Upon closer inspection, two webbed feet are paddling like mad, adjusting and correcting, propelling and slowing down, unbeknownst to onlookers.

Can you see the comparison now? On the outside, everything is running smoothly yet underneath there is work going on to keep things balanced. Unlike a comparison to treading water, in which case most of a person’s body is below the waterline – thus giving meaning to the phrase keeping your head above water – a duck isn’t paddling to avoid sinking. A duck can coast or it can propel forward, and either way, nobody knows what’s going on underneath. Is the comparison of leadership to a duck starting to make sense yet?

What we, as chief officers, face daily takes a toll on us. Whether you get paid to be an officer or it is something you do on the side while running your family business, the job never gets easier. People in authority, from politicians to professional athletes, are well versed at projecting confidence or concern as required; to me, successful leaders are those who do this well.

Find your own personal balance and be as positive as you can because while one person’s worst day may be our every day, our worst day is no one else’s, nor should it be. Instead, show strength and confidence for the benefit of those around you.

Many of us work and live in smaller communities and we are very public people. While not all of us wear a uniform all the time, people still know who we are and what we represent. I know that it is tough to always be on, and my hat is off to all of you who accept that responsibility and don’t try to duck out of it while you keep on paddling.


Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Tom is also very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C. as a communications director and conference committee chair. Email Tom at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept


Written by Vince MacKenzie
You cannot mention the word communication today without a focus on social media. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (and the list goes on) are playing greater roles in our lives. In the past we relied on mainstream media to report the news and inform us of events. Today everyone with an electronic device is photographer, reporter, complainer, and helper. But the public can be a valued communicator too, especially during an emergency.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
When you’re a broadcaster, whether on radio or television, you’re constantly reaching out to an audience that you presume is there. For the most part, you’re talking into a microphone or camera in a one-way conversation without any feedback from those to whom you’re speaking. How’s that for motivation? In broadcasting school we were taught to treat our audience as just one person, therefore giving listeners the impression that we were talking directly to them and them alone. This experience was enhanced when broadcasters opened the phones and took calls, thus allowing a direct connection with the audience.  

Magazine columnists are in a similar situation: we know the readers are there and we get reaction to what we say via emails and personal contact, but the feedback comes only after the column is published – weeks (sometimes months) after it has been written. Which is why the summer of 2014 was special for me; along with my Volunteer Vision co-author and good friend Vince MacKenzie, we took our opinions and columns off the pages of this magazine and to the people.   

Over the summer, we presented what we called Volunteer Vision LIVE – three sessions in two provinces at opposite ends of the country. Thanks to Fire Fighting in Canada editor Laura King, who moderated two of our sessions in British Columbia, and Tim Pley, president of the Fire Chiefs Association of BC, who moderated in Gander, N.L., we took readers deeper into our columns, explaining where the ideas came from, the inspiration behind our stories and expanding on the issues we had written about,

The beauty of our column is that Vince and I seem to touch on the same themes – not necessarily on purpose. It’s just the way we connect with the issues that face the fire service from coast to coast to coast. During the presentations, we brought forward several columns from the past few years; what struck me was that while the issues weren’t new, they are still relevant today, albeit with some new ideas and opinions. To say we all learned something from this exercise would be an understatement. The questions and comments in the rooms as we explored issues from recruitment and retention to retirement opened my eyes to the number of people who read what we have to say; there was a lot of acknowledgment and there were lots of heads nodding in silent recognition – or agreement – in each session.   

While we maintained the same format and storyline, each of the three sessions was completely different. We were unscripted and unplugged, so to speak, and if it wasn’t for the moderators, all of our sessions would have run way over. In fact, all of them spilled into the foyers during the subsequent networking sessions.

What I took away from those sessions goes far beyond meeting the readers; the experience reinforced to me that what I have to say is relevant to my peers. The fact that I have a hard time recruiting new members and staying ahead of the calendar resonates in other departments. My concerns over the future of the fire service is shared by many more; in fact, I’ve come to realize that while we tend to focus on recruitment on the front lines, we aren’t doing enough to address the need for leaders in our volunteer world. Seriously, it’s one thing to encourage new members to take on the daunting task of becoming a well-trained firefighter, but the need to step up and take on a leadership role adds a whole new wrinkle. Succession planning is vital to the health of any organization, and coming from a world that always has one foot firmly planted in the past, we need to be aware of this. We’re all not getting any younger, which is one thing I see as our biggest challenge in the future. Touching on one of Vince’s topics – the millennials in our ranks – can you actually see some of these people carrying your torch (and yes, I did say “your”)? As we grow older it may seem harder to realize, but it will and it has to happen.  

There are times when we exist within our own little worlds, our small departments, without realizing that what’s happening in the next town – or province for that matter – has an impact on what we are doing locally. I guess we just need to be reminded of this; and, hopefully, through a column written by a couple of small-town fire chiefs, those messages are realized.

Train as if your life depends on it, because it does, and understand that you are part of a great big family. I’ve been to Newfoundland and Labrador on three occasions and when asked recently if I have family back there, my answer was yes, yes I do have family back there – a fire family that gets bigger all the time thanks in a large part to my written words and those who read them.


Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Email Tom at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept


Written by Vince MacKenzie
It is common in smaller communities that the volunteer fire department is the only available emergency agency. Most of Canada’s smaller communities have fire stations, but they don’t always have police stations or medical centres. Therefore, when a major emergency incident or disaster strikes these communities, it is the volunteer fire departments that respond.

Unlike in larger cities with emergency-management offices and full-time staff, rural, large-scale disasters are usually dealt with by the members of the volunteer department. The rural fire chief or senior fire officer is thrust into the role of disaster operations commander, or, in times of non-emergency, the role of emergency operations co-ordinators and planners. This can certainly be a challenging role to be thrust into without preparation.

I would like to focus on one element of emergency planning: communication. When the emergency is over and evaluation and inquiry begins, communication is commonly identified as a key factor in the success or failure of disaster operations.  

Emergency management communication includes directing emergency responders, sharing public information, and gathering data about the emergency. Therefore, the fire chief needs to know how to receive credible information and how to communicate to the public effectively.

I think we can all agree that forms of communication have changed dramatically in the last five years with the growth of social media. In order to effectively communicate in today’s world, emergency planners now have to consider a social-media component to the emergency-operations plan.

Credible information now comes in many forms from the public. It used to be that everyone phoned into the emergency services to report issues, but today, many people who witness the incidents use social media to inform everyone. While most social media information is credible, some is tainted with opinion and rumors that will quickly spread to the public. The deluge of tweets and posts lends itself to misinformation because the public can receive information as quickly as the officials handling the situation. Unfortunately, the constant monitoring of crucial information can rapidly overload a conventional public information officer or media centre.

Reports from the public also generally come with photos that cannot be ignored by emergency operations centres. The challenge for local emergency managers is to capture that information to assist in a manner that is credible and timely.

I learned a new term during a recent session on media training: the digital volunteer. It’s a relatively new concept as applied to emergency management, but I believe it will soon become a familiar term.

The digital volunteer is a person who emergency managers identify to help monitor social media platforms for relevant information and data during emergencies. Digital volunteers are not actively engaged in the emergency operations centre, but are engaged with the public information officer to alert those in charge when significant messaging is trending. Digital volunteers are, in essence, social-media savvy spectators recruited to help filter the barrage of information. If you spend any time on social media, you can probably think of a few of those people now. During almost every emergency, people emerge online to provide information to the public through posts on social media, as though they were officials themselves.  

We all know someone who is tuned into the event for whatever reason. Many times these people are actively engaged in the situation and can be a valuable resource to assist with analyzing the volume of information. Enlisting these digital volunteers to filter and inform the emergency operations centre of trending issues or damaging rumors will be very helpful to overall communication. We should not turn away from these opportunities that can help us navigate the changing world of emergency management. So why not write this concept into our emergency planning?

This fall, I will participate in an exercise on the concept of the digital volunteer at an emergency management conference in Nova Scotia. I am excited to find out what the organizers have in store for us. While the concept of the digital volunteer is relatively new, I see great value in it as a tool to help fire departments keep on top of today’s busy communication world.


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Service and an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. Email him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince


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