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Features Volunteers
The Fire Within


February 5, 2009
By James Careless

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There are firefighter calendars sold as fundraisers, and then there are The Fire Within calendars. Instead of cheesy, posed group photos or questionable firefighter beefcake, The Fire Within features professionally captured images of volunteer firefighters in real life,  sometimes with houses blazing behind them as they gaze stoically into the camera.

Calendar fundraiser outsells others, shows depth of volunteer departments and reveals passion for the job

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Lillooett , B.C., firefigfhters Darren Oike (left), Jeff Sneep, Rob Pelland, Spence Strecheniuk, Allan Payne, Warren Shaw and Brad Bushill


 

There are firefighter calendars sold as fundraisers, and then there are The Fire Within calendars. Instead of cheesy, posed group photos or questionable firefighter beefcake, The Fire Within features professionally captured images of volunteer firefighters in real life,  sometimes with houses blazing behind them as they gaze stoically into the camera. The stories these images tell are as riveting and thought-provoking as any of those in National Geographic magazine – even though they feature local firefighters buyers know as neighbours and friends.

But that’s just the beginning: Unlike other calendars, everything involved with producing The Fire Within calendars is handled by The Fire Within Project, founded by retired Calgary financial planner Chad Sartison, and a small staff. This includes sending professional photographer Charles Hope to participating departments to handle the shoots, formatting and producing the calendars, and then shipping the calendars to the departments to sell.

Each calendar retails for $20, with $8 going back to The Fire Within to cover costs. Generous sponsorship from companies such as energy giant EnCana Corp. (www.encana.ca), the Total Fire Group (www.totalfiregroup.com) and Edmonton-based Commercial Solutions Inc. (www.csinet.ca) covers the rest. Although The Fire Within’s staff are paid employees, Sartison himself hadn’t made a penny from the project until recently (he now draws a small salary).

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Firefighters in Bow Island, Alta., pose for a Fire Within calendar shot. From left to right, Clark Schartner, Curtis Gouw, Russ Schartner and Mike Torscher.


 

 “We absolutely guarantee that no fire department will ever lose money on The Fire Within,” Sartison says. “All we ask is for a department to send us $1,000 upfront – the $1,000 is to help cover the upfront costs associated with photography, design and layout. To cover this $1,000 cost, a department would have to sell 86 calendars. The Fire Within asks for payment of the calendars once they have been sold by the department. If they can’t sell 86, we will refund the difference to make sure that their account gets back to zero. This is not about making money or costing them cash.”

Do The Fire Within calendars actually sell? Yes, says Ron Cust, the fire chief in Morinville, Alta. “It’s our fourth year taking part in the project and for us it’s been absolutely awesome.” His enthusiasm is echoed by Rodney Schmidt, chief of the High Level Fire Department in Alberta. “We sell 1,000 of these calendars in a town of 3,444,” Chief Schmidt says. “We have not had to go door to door in our community as they pretty much sell themselves.”

■ Genesis
Like many great ideas, The Fire Within calendar was born almost by accident. “Some years ago, I had moved to a small town about 45 minutes outside of Calgary called Longview,” Sartison says. “I stopped by the volunteer Longview Fire Department to buy a Christmas tree and they asked me to join.” Having joined, Sartison learned that the trees were a fundraiser for the fire department. “Up to that point, I had never given a second thought as to how such departments raise money,” he recalls. Even this knowledge didn’t tweak Sartison’s financial instinct. It wasn’t until he had been a volunteer firefighter for two years that the idea hit him. It came after the Longview department extracted a family from a car wreck and family members thanked him just before the daughters were airlifted to hospital by a STARS medevac helicopter. “They told us that they had no idea that we were volunteers,” Sartison says. “It struck me then that there was a compelling story to be told about volunteer firefighters, and that a calendar was a brilliant way to tell it visually while raising funds.”

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The Fire Within expanded into Ontario in 2009 with the Kingston Fire Department being the among the first on board. Pictured in front of the Kingston Penitentiary (left to right) are Ryan Vivian, Darcy Knott, Dave Batsford, Glenn Roy, Josh Howes, Kendal Watts and Dan Rioux.


 

Acumen and inspiration
As a highly successful businessman, Sartison knew a few things about marketing and sales. So when he came up with the idea of a firefighter calendar, he knew it would have to be a cut above the rest. His concept: Have the photos shot by a pro so the composition and quality would be eye catching; do the layout properly, so that the look and feel of the calendar would be as good as anything sold at retail stores; and, above all, tell a story with the photos and text – the story of ”the fire within” volunteer firefighters that motivates them to donate time and risk their lives helping fellow citizens.

Next came management. Sartison knows that firefighters don’t have time to worry about details like production and sales so he decided to make things simple: The Fire Within would handle all the details, including dispatching the photographer to each department’s home turf to snap the photos. All the department would have to do is order the calendars, sell them and send back the pre-determined share.

The result: “In the first year, 2005, we produced a regional calendar featuring six fire departments in southern Alberta,” he says. “For 2009, we have produced five different calendars in Alberta, two in Ontario and one in B.C.” Those five calendars involve 57 departments from Andrew to Vegreville in Alberta, from Chilliwack to 100 Mile House in B.C. and Kingston, Ont.

It hasn’t been an easy project for Sartison, in part because he was diagnosed with cancer after getting the project off the ground. “It was a two-year battle,” he says. “For a while, it didn’t look like it would have a positive outcome.”

Sartison triumphed over cancer; a victory that “really made me obsessed with making a difference,” he says. “After all, that’s why I joined the fire department in the first place.”

In year three, The Fire Within’s early money challenges were eased by EnCana’s decision to sponsor the program for $100,000 annually, for three years. That sponsorship is up for renewal this year. This, plus the help provided by The Fire Within’s other sponsors, has ensured the long life and financial health of the project.

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The 2009 calendar is the fourth for firefighters in Morinville, Alta. Pictured (left to right) are Josh Cust, Steve Hammond, Brad Boddez, Jonny Wedick and Brian Johnston.


 

■ Benefits beyond money
The Fire Within has been a proven money maker for the Morinville and High Level fire departments, among others. According to chiefs Cust and Schmidt, the money raised is far more than would have been generated by other public campaigns and the project is far less time consuming than many other fundraisers. “We managed to raise $10,000 through our calendar sales,” says Morinville’s Chief Cust. “Thanks to matching funds from local businesses and government, we ended up raising $40,000!”

The Red Deer and Rocky Mountain House departments netted $12,000 from the sale of their calendars; Strathmore, Alta., made a $14,400 profit, Swan Hills raised $7,200 and Andrew, Alta., netted $6,000.

But this sales campaign isn’t just about money: It’s a chance for people to put a face on their local volunteer firefighters and for the firefighters to raise the awareness about fire safety in general.

“This puts our people one-on-one with the public in a non-tragic situation,” says Cust. “It’s great for boosting our department  as well as fundraising, and it really helps our morale.”

“The real purpose of The Fire Within is to make the public aware of how much volunteers do,” says Sartison. To take this a step further, he has launched another campaign called Heroes in the Sky. It’s a whimsical exercise in consciousness raising: For two days, local volunteers camp out on the roof of a high-traffic store in their communities, such as Canadian Tire, pitching tents and cooking food. On the ground, other volunteers are on hand with their fire apparatus, meeting the public and selling calendars.

“We also set up a grill to sell pancakes, dogs and burgers,” says Chief Schmidt. “Heroes in the Sky is much more than a fundraiser: It’s a public awareness campaign that really gets the public involved in a fun way.”

■ The future
Five years on, Chad Sartison is as devoted to The Fire Within project as ever. Moreover, his horizons are broadening, with plans to take the calendar nationwide and south into  the U.S.

“I really love this project,” Sartison says. “I think it’s my calling. It’s why I’m here.”

For volunteer fire departments looking for a better way to raise funds, The Fire Within is well worth considering, Sartison says. Compared to standard community fundraisers such as barbecues and raffles, The Fire Within takes less time, is more profitable and portrays the firefighters in a positive light. It also stays in people’s homes for 365 days, keeping fire safety in the foreground of their lives.

To enrol your department in The Fire Within project, go to www.thefirewithin.ca or call 1-866-HERO 911.


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