Fire Fighting in Canada

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Volunteer Vision: May 2015

My colleague, Tom DeSorcy, wrote in March about public perceptions of leadership positions in volunteer fire departments. I think Tom’s analogy of busy fires chiefs who appear calm on the outside but, like ducks, paddle furiously under the surface to keep things running smoothly, was spot on.

April 20, 2015 
By Vince MacKenzie

I would like to expand on Tom’s point and focus on firefighter training. Training is a skill that few recognize until a significant event occurs. Effective training takes leaders who spend countless hours preparing. Like ducks, those organizers are furiously working where no one can see to keep their departments trained and motivated.

Many colleagues have told me that they believe running a composite or volunteer fire department is a greater challenge than running a career department. If volunteers aren’t motivated, they simply quit and leave, and the department’s investment in training – both time and money – is gone. This challenges a department’s leadership team to appear calm while furiously paddling like the duck to keep the rest of the team motivated.

Running a successful volunteer fire department is more than the chief’s job; it takes the collaboration of every member. Everyone has to be a leader and have a positive attitude toward training.

I am the fire chief in a community of about 15,000 people. While my community is considered small by outsiders, it serves many smaller communities and therefore has city infrastructures and larger hazards and risks.


As I wrote this, I was fresh off one of those calls that chiefs forever remember as tests of their departments’ resources and strengths. On a stormy and cold February night, my department was dispatched to a tour-bus rollover with 55 occupants. The call came in with reports of multiple injuries and entrapment.

Upon receiving the dispatch on my pager at home, I remember having one of those gut-ripping feelings. As I went out the door, I immediately thought of our resources and crew and wondered – while forcing myself to appear calm on the outside like the paddling duck, but my mind was reeling – if we were trained to deal with the magnitude of what we were about to face.

The six-minute drive to the scene was torturous. Not only was it a dangerous drive in slippery winter conditions, but my instincts were telling me to organize and use every second I could to think ahead. I was also preparing myself mentally for what I was about to see. I knew that I was about to be in command of a large incident. It was one of those calls at which you search every aspect of your training, experiences and relationships to perform as effectively as you can. More importantly, it was a call that was going to demand the exact same thing from every volunteer firefighter who responded.

Our crews along with paramedics and other partners successfully got all 55 patients to the hospital in under an hour; the outcome was extremely good and most injuries were minor.

The next day I beamed with pride for our first responders; every member brought his or her A game. But again, I felt anxious. I thought about what the scene would have been like if we had not been properly trained. Let me just say that motivation levels were high. I wrote about the three Ts for firefighter motivation (technology, training and tragedy) in a June 2013 column and I am happy to say this call proved that T for training is the best motivator; it could very well have been T for tragedy.

The point is that firefighters never realize the value of every little tidbit of training they receive; it is only in times of crisis that we know the extreme value of high motivation for training. Only then does your training become your trusted instinct, as was mine on that frightful night.

As volunteer firefighters, we should make every day some kind of training day. We owe it to ourselves to make conscious efforts to commit something to memory so we can recall it when the need arises. Take 10 to 15 minutes out of every day to read an article, watch a training video, or participate in some sort of training.  

Don’t underestimate the power of those short training sessions; you never know when it will be needed, and when it does, it comes automatically and confidently. This is especially true for those smaller departments that have a low call frequency. As difficult as it is to stay motivated, volunteer departments especially need to make every day a training day. Keep paddling! 

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

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