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Volunteer Vision: 100 years of service unimpeded by change

I have received many e-mails regarding my first column, Obstacles in maintaining a volunteer department, in June. The e-mails came from fire chiefs, provincial fire marshals and firefighters, all of whom have agreed with the content of the column.

September 18, 2008
By Brad Patton

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I have received many e-mails regarding my first column, Obstacles in maintaining a volunteer department, in June. The e-mails came from fire chiefs, provincial fire marshals and firefighters, all of whom have agreed with the content of the column. 

I now feel brave enough to complete my thoughts. It is my opinion that the fire service as a whole is in big trouble, and if a “hero” doesn’t come along soon, we are all in for a very rough time that many of us may not survive.

By a hero, I mean a true leader – someone who will do the right thing for the fire services and the public we serve, even if it means upsetting a whole lot of people.

The management or the delivery style of the fire service, whether it be volunteer, paid on call, part time or full time, has not changed. Yes, we have been able to purchase and enjoy some fantastic equipment: high-tech gear; thermo-imaging cameras; hydraulic cutters that will cut just about anything; bunker gear and boats that are lighter and offer more protection than anything in the past. Our equipment can be very good – that’s not the problem.

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Our training can be very good too. If you want to be the best-trained firefighter it’s all there for you: great instructors; college programs; online training; thousands of well-written books that cover everything from venting a house to swift water rescue, etc. Every aspect of our job is written somewhere. But after 100 years, we still manage and deliver our services the same way. I don’t believe there is a successful business administrator out there who would tell you that’s a good thing. I’ll try to put this into perspective for you with my own experiences which, hopefully, you can relate to.

When I started in the fire service, the ambulance service was run out of the local funeral home and was just evolving and going through a great change to become a dedicated emergency service. At that time, it was a mom-and-pop type of business with a typical staff of a couple of guys who had some very basic first aid and a Dodge van with a kitchen cabinet screwed to the inside. They did the best they could, when or if they showed up at an emergency.

At the same time, just about every town had its own police force, if you could call it that. The towns I lived in usually had five or six beat cops, two or maybe three patrol cars and a police chief who was never far away and was always called to anything big. The cops were generally local big boys with a bit of education who often did things their way. While all that was going on, I was just a young firefighter. I look at those organizations now and, boy, have they changed!

There are basically three or four types of police departments now: federal; provincial; regional/county; and metropolitan police, who are in the larger cities. Long gone are the small police forces in every little town. They changed how they did business and it works very well. It doesn’t matter where you go in Canada, a cop is a cop – well trained and professional.

The same changes have happened to the ambulance services. Long gone are the Dodge vans and a couple of guys with some basic skills in first aid whose battle plan was simple at the time: stop the big flow of blood or perhaps put the patient on some oxygen, load him and go to the closest hospital. Look at the ambulance service now and see what the once-fledgling services have become.

Not very many small town ambulance services exist today. Once again, they are either run by the province, region/county, large cities, and large, private organizations.

The ambulance attendants have gone from a couple of guys with very basic first aid to a pair of medics. These paramedics are well trained and dedicated to saving lives. They constantly train to become better in their field.

In the last 20 to 30 years, both the police and ambulance services have totally rebuilt their organizations to deliver a better service to their customers, and I do mean a total rebuild of their businesses. They are better run organizations, better equipped and trained to provide a standard level of service now. 

I have a simple test to do to check the accuracy of my statements. Go to or think about a rural area near you. If you were to call the police or an ambulance, would the service you receive or the quality of care be any different (other than, perhaps, response time) than if you were in a large town or city? Would you receive the same level of service?

In the November issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, Part 2 of this story will focus on the organizational changes, or lack of, in fire services.  

Love the job, learn something new every day and be prepared to make changes.



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


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