Volunteer Vision: December 2013
By Tom DeSorcy
As one generation gives way to the next, so does the makeup of our fire departments.
By Tom DeSorcy
As one generation gives way to the next, so does the makeup of our fire departments. My Volunteer Vision colleague, Vince MacKenzie, spoke about this at our Fire Chiefs Association of B.C. conference in Penticton in June; in particular, he talked about the emergence of the millennials or the Y generation. People born in 1995 are eligible to become volunteer firefighters. Feel old? It doesn’t matter what generation our volunteer firefighters belong to, I believe that all firefighters are unique, kind of like snowflakes.
New firefighters fall into your department much like snow falls on the hills; they land softly at first, not knowing exactly where to go, just landing where they may. Sure, they’re unique at first, but when joined with other newbies, they start to lose that uniqueness and assimilate into the group.
Soon the recruits warm to their surroundings, and with time, and like the snow that begins to melt as the seasons change, what once was ice turns into water, cascades into a flowing stream, and eventually becomes a much larger body of fresh, clear water heading toward an ocean. The fresh water begins to mix with the old salt of the sea, and although it takes a while to blend completely, the two eventually become one.
OK, maybe I’m reaching a little with my snow-water-ocean-old-salt metaphor. But it makes sense, especially when you think back to when we could always count on big snowfalls and there was no shortage of volunteers, no matter their ages.
Today I see the volunteer fire service experiencing a bit of a drought. Across this nation, the volunteer fire service is largely relying upon that anticipated snowfall, but for many, there are fewer snowflakes each year. And that means the old salt – the veterans – have to sustain much more than we used to.
Why are we experiencing this?
I’ve said this in the past: in a way, we’re victims of our own success. Feed a stray cat just once and it keeps coming back for more. When fire departments responded only to actual fires, the volunteer fire department was more of a social gathering place than a response agency. People have changed. The world has changed. Our social gatherings have changed, and a much greater demand for service and attention – a sense of expectation, if you will – now exists. It’s that demand for service today, from an increasingly taxed public, that has added to our strains. Think about this as an example: How have cellphones impacted our business? Locally, many of our calls here in Hope, B.C., come from highway travellers – motorists who see smoke in the distance from their vehicle, as they travel a mile a minute down the highway – we call them drive-by 911s. In the time it takes them to see the smoke, dial three numbers, connect to dispatch, figure out where they are and where they saw the smoke, they are up to 10 kilometres from their original location.
Don’t get me wrong, cellphone communication is the greatest thing in our world, but we weren’t going to those calls 25 years ago. We also didn’t have monitored alarms back in the day. Sure, monitored alarms are a great addition to public safety, but the creation of this service has added an industry that advertises our services to their customers.
As with the former snowflakes, our members remain unique in that they will do anything to help anyone. Firefighters just can’t seem to say no to anyone, and they will go out of their way to assist when and where they’re needed. We are doing more with less but you’ll hear few complaints. Add to this the fact that competition for volunteers is tougher. Being a volunteer in other organizations – service clubs or fundraising organizations – is a little less onerous in terms of the required training and time commitment; you show up, ask what you can do and you are in. The volunteer fire service back then was really no exception, but, again, in this day and age we have had
I’ve said it before: if you wanted to volunteer with your kids in minor hockey but learned you would have to take a 12-month training session on the game of hockey to do it, you probably wouldn’t. When the snow was plentiful and the big pool was smooth and calm, it was easy to melt into it. Today we don’t get as much snow, and what we do get tends to evaporate before it has a chance to join that larger body. The pressure is certainly upon us and it will only get worse.
Is there an answer? All we can do is go with the flow, assuming of course there is one.
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. DeSorcy is married with two children and enjoys curling and golf. He is also very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C as communications director and conference committee chair. E-mail Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept