Fire Fighting in Canada

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Volunteer Vision: November 2015

The recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters is critical to the successful and efficient operation of a volunteer or composite fire department.

November 11, 2015
By Vince MacKenzie

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Effective fire departments require ample personnel to safely and efficiently perform their duties, but recruiting for a fire department is not just about having the numbers to fill the ranks. Once recruited, volunteer firefighters should have long careers, full of commitments, sacrifices, duties and responsibilities.

Unfortunately, it is becoming more challenging to recruit, train and effectively retain firefighters across Canada. Some recruits leave after just a short time with the department, which creates a revolving-door effect.

It is no wonder fire departments struggle given the variables and factors affecting recruitment and retention, such as changing demographics and lifestyles in our communities. But it’s not just the fire service that is seeing a drop in volunteerism; all community and service organizations are experiencing challenges to their very existence.   

Most fire chiefs should understand what is going on in their respective fire departments, but do they?

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A department’s image within a community is one aspect of recruitment that is often overlooked. In my view, there are two reasons to explain why image is ignored.

Perhaps we have become so secure in what we perceive as our community reputations that our collective complacency hinders our ability to recruit. We feel that our organizations are noble and honourable, so we assume anyone in a community with half a heart would answer the call to become a firefighter. These departments are then shocked when very few come to volunteer.

Another possibility is that some of our fire departments have struggled with recruitment so long that low numbers are the new norm and accepted as part of a beat-down organization. With poor outlooks, chiefs might not feel motivated to critically examine their own operations and make tough changes away from local tradition.

Volunteer fire services need to stop and look inward from time to time. Is behaviour, policy, reputation or public image getting in the way of your recruitment efforts? Are fire chiefs publically protesting that no one wants to join their organizations, claiming that everyone in town is too busy, or the new generation doesn’t have the same values?

Nothing portrays the image of your fire department to potential recruits more than the climate and atmosphere created from within. Existing members in the fire department are one of your biggest marketing tools. But marketing works both ways; if members have bad attitudes, their demeanours can negatively affect recruitment.

Is your department so rooted in policy and tradition that the doors are closed to potential recruits? I am not talking about gender or race, I am talking about personalities and leadership skills of your present membership. I have seen this happen in departments –a large recruitment crisis occurs that requires change and the entire old guard leaves. Only then does the department transform into something better than ever before.

Does your department experience frequent turnovers? Is it possible that when new firefighters experience the atmosphere in your fire station that some choose to renege? Perhaps the recruits were not told what to expect up front, or maybe the department does not exemplify a good organization. If you think one of those is true, your department needs an adjustment.

I often say that no one jumps aboard a sinking ship. With this in mind, it is important for fire departments to be strong, virtuous organizations, rooted deep in training and professionalism. Potential recruits who are willing to serve for the right reasons seek out disciplined organizations; and when they find them, they typically stay for long careers and contribute passionately.

Cultures take a long time to develop and are also slow to deteriorate. Creating a positive culture within your department sets the foundation for successful recruitment and retention. Right the ship from within before you expect potential sailors to jump on board.

While most Canadian towns have other external recruitment challenges, we must also look at ourselves critically from time to time. Before decrying the lack of personnel in your fire department, examine whether the message and reputation of your fire department is inviting to potential volunteers.


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. Email him at firechief@townofgfw.com and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince


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