Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Leadership
Firelines: February 2016

The demands on volunteer or paid-on-call firefighters just seem to keep ratcheting upwards. The results are better-trained, highly competent firefighters who are able to respond to myriad types of emergencies. If there is a downside to this change, it’s the increased demand on members’ time and the consequent effect on recruitment and retention.

February 12, 2016
By Dave Balding

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Fire-service leaders are also experiencing more demands on their time. Documentation is now such an essential aspect of managing a fire department – whether it’s recording training and performance evaluations, incident responses or interactions with members. Personnel intake is not, and shouldn’t be, as simple as it once was. When I joined the fire service I completed a one-page application and I was handed a pager, a fire-hall key and issued turnout gear; that was all I needed to respond to calls on the tailboard of the engine. Becoming a member of our fire department is now a multi-step process designed to attract the right individuals, integrate them with the membership and provide some fundamental training before they respond on our rigs. Years ago we had never heard of standard operating guidelines (or procedures) – now we implement them, ensure our members are conversant with them and modify them as warranted. These guidelines are intended to be living documents that reflect the way our departments do business.

My point is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a volunteer fire chief to hold down a paying job and run a fire department in his or her after hours. Don’t get me wrong, these changes in the chief’s office are healthy – greater accountability, accurately tracking training and other elements of the department, and refined recruiting procedures, to name a few. However, I also believe that chief officers in volunteer positions need some help with the ever-increasing administrative demands placed on them.

Many fire departments are fortunate to have sufficient budgets to hire a full-time fire chief, although that certainly does not mean all the work is easily done. We haven’t even mentioned operating and capital budgets, fire underwriter surveys and a host of other required work. In fact, I don’t know a full-time fire chief who works only 40 hours a week. There are other options to consider; for example some communities hire a part-time fire chief, or, to get someone in the office on a full-time basis, combine roles such as fire chief, emergency-program co-ordinator and, perhaps, bylaw enforcement. I find this to be a forward-thinking model, however, it is not without its challenges. If there is a large-scale event, a fire chief would find it difficult to act as both an incident commander on-scene and also an emergency co-ordinator who is commonly found in the emergency operations centre.

We recruit volunteers for fire fighting, but what’s stopping us from recruiting volunteers to assist with administrative support? Not everyone is cut out to be an emergency responder, but there may be folks in your community who may be willing to help in other ways. Further, firefighters must be able to respond promptly at any time of day, whereas data entry and other clerical tasks can be done at the volunteer’s convenience.

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Some authorities having jurisdiction – regional districts in British Columbia for example – have recognized the challenges faced by the chiefs in their rural departments and moved to hire regional fire chiefs or protective-service managers. These individuals support their jurisdictions by guiding several departments in the regions and representing their concerns at the regional board level. Finance-department staff at the regional level may also be a resource for departments by helping with budget preparations and looking after accounts payable.

As with any aspect of the fire service, if the current model is untenable I see three options. First, we can pay to help the situation; that may mean hiring paid-on-call or career firefighters during a shortage of volunteers or hiring a fire chief for various administrative functions. The second, and more unsavoury option in the eyes of the fire service (possibly because we are doers and helpers who tend not to shrink away from a challenge), is a reduction in service level. The third option requires community members to step up and help.

We are incredibly fortunate to have many fire-service leaders who are so committed to making it all work for their departments and their communities. As with firefighters or officers at any level, however, chiefs need support. The last thing any emergency service organization wants is an overburdened leader wondering, “Did I sign up for this?” If your organization is mired in an administrative nightmare, you may want to consider one of those three options.


Dave Balding joined the fire service in 1985 and is now fire chief in Golden, B.C. Contact Dave at david.balding@golden.ca and follow him on Twitter at @FireChiefDaveB


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