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Volunteer Vision: December 2015


December 3, 2015
By Tom DeSorcy

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Have you ever heard a member of your crew say, “This is not what I signed up for”?

If the commenter was a newcomer, it is probably best that this firefighter gets out before you invest too much of your time and training dollars, right?

The comment more likely came from an older member of the team and was spawned by change. I have written about change in past columns, but there are many different forms of change.

The kind of change I’m thinking about is the way in which fire services conduct our business or the way in which we have been forced to conduct our business. Those of us who have seen the fire department back in the day know that times have changed and we now operate in a totally different world. Why is this so noticeable? Many volunteer departments rely on the skills, history and experiences of older members. As we all grow older, ideas about the way it was become more and more noticeable.

I’m a huge proponent of paying respects to the past and never forgetting the way it used to be, even though we do it totally differently now. Do you encourage way-back-when stories in your department? To me, telling stories opens the window to the past. Sharing history – the stories come from the guys who were there – is a great team build. Anecdotes presented with a don’t-try-this-at-home attitude offer new firefighters glimpses into the past and can give them an appreciation for the changes that have come about in terms of training, operations and administration.

I’m not that old but I have stories of my own and at times I think of them just to remind me why I do what I do today. Some of those stories are cringe-worthy. Our volunteer crew in the ’80s went to a motor-vehicle incident on the highway outside of town. The driver asked the crew to keep an eye out for her cat. One of the crew members spotted the obviously deceased feline, reached into the vehicle, held it up high in the air, by the tail, and shouted: “Found it!” You can imagine the horror of the cat owner. Obviously it was not a shining moment for our crew, but one you can’t help but look back on and smile. The recruits can’t believe something like that actually happened, but it did. That story is a teachable moment and a history lesson to boot.

These were the days before operational guidelines, codes of conduct and accountability. This was a time when a volunteer department was a group of community-minded individuals who just wanted to help out, and motor-vehicle incidents were uncommon. Firefighter’s turnout gear was limited and mismatched and honestly they almost looked out of place.

Today’s recruits want to learn, want to take the training you provide and want to help in a meaningful way as part of a dedicated, professional team and family above and beyond customer service and satisfaction. The changing face of the volunteer is the biggest challenge we face today in our communities, no matter what organization.

Have you heard someone say, “People don’t volunteer like they used to”? Years ago it was common for people to be involved with more than one organization, which often meant a full calendar from one meeting to another every night of the week. If you had kids in minor sports you were always working behind the scenes. Getting involved was simply a matter of showing up and helping out – and that included the fire department. Today there are applications, criminal records checks, driver’s abstracts and training just to volunteer with a local festival society. Walking into a fire hall to help out is simply not an option anymore.

There’s a lot to be said about the way it was, but a lot more to be said about the way it is. Just because we did it that way before does not make it right, and hanging your hat on past practice can be dangerous. The volunteer fire service is not unique in the way we do business. Yes the veterans of the department didn’t sign up for this but we are very glad they signed up for that, because without them we’d be left to make up our own stories and they wouldn’t be as much fun.


Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Originally a radio broadcaster, Tom’s voice could be heard in the early 1990s across Canada as one of the hosts of Country Coast to Coast. Tom is married with two children and enjoys curling, golf, cooking and wine tasting. He is also very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C as communications director and conference committee chair. Email Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept

*Carousel photo from Flickr by City of Toronto Archives


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