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Taking the volunteer out of the department?

Dec. 16, 2008 - There is a lot to be said for a name. We associate the name of a group with what that group provides and the level of service or quality of the product. In the last seven to 10 years I’ve notice that many (well over 50 per cent) of volunteer firefighters don’t like to be called volunteers.

December 16, 2008 
By Brad Patton

The word volunteer, they believe – and I agree – often gives a negative impression. Often, the general citizenry associates the word volunteer with a bunch of guys sitting around playing cards once a week, calling it training. Or people might exclaim  – and I love this one – “Volunteer firefighters don’t go to real fires, or car accidents. You guys call in the professional firefighters any time it gets big or dangerous.” I could go on but if you’re in the fire service you’ve already heard the stories.

About eight years ago in a newly amalgamated fire department I was helping to manage – 300 volunteer firefighters in 13 stations with a million or so problems – I thought a new window decal would solve some of our problems, so we came up with a nice decal. Across the top it read VOLUNTEER; the middle was a crest; and across the bottom it read FIREFIGHTER. I thought firefighters would be proud to have them on their car windows and that this would be the first step in uniting all the volunteer firefighters.

They did like the window decal and everyone wanted five, but I was surprised when I noticed 60 to 70 per cent of the firefighters cut off the word VOLUNTEER. I asked many of them why, and they said their neighbours, friends, co-workers and people on the street often said the word volunteer takes away from the word firefighter. We were even going to paint a slogan on the trucks “Volunteer Firefighters Proud to Serve,” but that almost started a war so the idea was scrubbed.

It is a real shame that so many people can’t be proud of our history but I think most of this is borne of ignorance. Many people truly do not understand what being a volunteer firefighter is all about or how hard our departments work.
Perhaps if we managed our departments better we would not have this problem, which seems to occur across the country. If we, as managers, dared to put on our big-boy pants, we could admit we have made some mistakes through lax policies and practices.

We all know of volunteer firefighters who have been allowed to give our departments a bad name. We have failed to take action against these few individuals who are there just for the glory, or just to get a few years in so they can apply to a full-time department. These bad apples have poor attendance at training sessions, or when they are at training they don’t contribute or even listen. They pick and choose the calls to which they respond. They wear fire department T-shirts and ball caps to bars and they stay too long. In short, those few non-performers have given us all a bad name that has and will stick with us for a long time.

So, what do we do? I suggest that we get rid of these guys ASAP. Send a clear message to your firefighters and the public that these are not the types of people we want in our organizations. When I talk to chiefs about this they often say they are short staffed and can’t get new recruits. What they often don’t understand is that the firefighters that give your departments a bad name are often the reason you can’t get good applicants. You must first fix the problem by getting rid of the deadwood that gives your department a bad rep and endangers your staff and the public you serve. Be a chief. Be a training officer. Do what’s right – job first, friends second. There will be some bumps but in the end your staff and community will respect you for doing the right thing
After you have cleaned house and can truly say “We are professionals”. Then maybe it’s time we look for other words to describe the services we provide, like cost efficient, practical, admirable and second to none.

I’m open to ideas. I would be a bit sad to see us lose the word volunteer but maybe the time has come to move on.

Be proud of what you do, set your goals high and don’t let a few in your organization bring the rest down.

Keep your comments coming. I learn a lot from them.

Brad Patton is fire chief for the Centre Wellington Volunteer Fire Rescue Department in Ontario, one of the largest volunteer departments in the province, with stations in Fergus and Elora.

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