Volunteer Vision: May 2016
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.
Recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters is crucial to a fire department’s strength and ability to provide effective services.
Most volunteer departments are challenged to recruit members willing to serve. In my opinion, one of the possible solutions to recruitment problems is blatantly obvious: diversity. It stands to reason that if fire departments become more diverse – through nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation and religious beliefs – we would have a stronger fire service, not only in increased numbers but also by the richness achieved through collective intelligence and different perspectives.
I have been involved in a project for the past 12 months through the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs to enhance the recruitment and retention of firefighters. Through that process, I have learned a lot, expanded on a few things I already knew, and questioned some of my perceptions. I also discovered that no group or organization can provide a definitive number of volunteer firefighters serving Canadian communities, let alone a breakdown of diversity factors. Anecdotally, however, it’s clear that inclusion and diversity are indeed an issue in our volunteer fire services.
Certainly career services are dominated by white males, a circumstance that developed through tradition, and now fire services struggle to diversify to better reflect the communities they serve.
In November, I wrote about the image a fire department projects to its community. If the image and actions of a fire department are positive, the department tends to attract more potential recruits. These potential recruits are often likeminded but, therefore, also share other characteristics such as gender, race and age. Have we inadvertently bred a closed shop with positive images?
Potential volunteer firefighter applicants seem to be getting rarer by the day, but it is reasonable to expect that there are more potential recruits out there if only we could find them. This is where expanded knowledge of marketing comes in; as the old business advice goes, “In good times you should advertise but in bad times you must advertise.” Fire services need to promote and advertise more positively to an expanded audience; that is difficult to accomplish when a lot of the news stories coming out of the fire service about inclusion and diversity are negative. Rarely do the mainstream media pick up positive stories, and this, in my opinion, is where fire services are losing the battle.
Communities across Canada are expanding culturally and ethnically. But most communities are close to 50 per cent male and 50 per cent female. Fire departments are missing a large group of potential firefighters by not aggressively recruiting and appealing to women. It is especially important that fire departments target this audience given some of the negative news stories. A recent incident in Newfoundland highlights the point and potentially gives us all an undeserved black eye. This type of publicity disturbs me as a fire chief, as it injures any efforts by fire services to promote gender equity. Our fire services are for everyone and, to be successful, all departments must be diverse and inclusive.
Change is inevitable. Look at the ways we fight fires now; that has changed. Look at our demands on service and training time; that has changed. And look at the numbers in our ranks; that has changed. Why is the topic of diversity seemingly so hard to grasp?
Volunteer fire services need training in diversity and inclusion; they also need to talk about it more – honestly open up and learn what it means. We know that most of our fire services do not reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, partly, perhaps, because departments fail to target diverse audiences in their recruitment campaigns. That’s what needs to change.
We all know what the problem is; the solution seems to elude everyone. Perhaps it’s a change that will come with a cultural shift, but we need to figure out how to fast track it before it is too late.
Progressive volunteer fire departments across the country will recognize the need to step outside traditional recruiting and aim for more diverse fire departments. Many departments across Canada have programs aimed at youth, and inclusion is a main component of their efforts; such is the case in my fire department. As we embrace the movements to include all, we will see a fire service in which the recruitment of a female firefighter is no longer a big deal; it will become so commonplace that it will not need to be highlighted in the local news.
Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince