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Volunteer Vision: June 2012

I have had an opportunity to attend, present, and be a delegate at various firefighting seminars and conferences across the country over the last 24 months, and it is quite apparent that change is taking place in the volunteer fire service. 

June 11, 2012
By Vince MacKenzie

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I have had an opportunity to attend, present, and be a delegate at various firefighting seminars and conferences across the country over the last 24 months, and it is quite apparent that change is taking place in the volunteer fire service. 

That is no surprise, as we have been changing since the modern fire service was born. What is remarkable, in my view, is that in the last five years, change has accelerated, and because of that rapid pace, the magnitude of that change is very intimidating to many firefighters, myself included. As we train for our work, and then serve and do our jobs, and continually try to update our professional development, it’s hard not to wonder if we are doing all we can do. Hence, the feeling of intimidation.

Not only is the fire service changing in terms of firefighting tactics, but also there is considerable change in communication and technology. Couple that with the generational divide among our personnel, the change in the way we do business from legal, moral, and accountability perspectives, then consider the volunteer firefighter who is experiencing change at home or at work. All these changes are among the reasons that many firefighters find it a challenge to keep up, and may even decide to leave the fire service. 

Individually, all these changes would not be overwhelming, but when the world throws them at us all at once, it takes extra effort to sort through the challenges so we don’t become so overwhelmed that we question what we are doing in the first place.

To keep up with all this change, the world has devised communication technology and smart phones that supposedly make things easier for us. Instant communication and instant recall/research has become the norm.

Firefighters can now acquire and view training information in the palms of their hand in seconds. Some say we are training ourselves to expect instant results and gratification in return. At a recent Beyond Hoses and Helmets course I was honoured to help instruct in British Columbia, there was a diverse mixture of younger and older firefighters, all gathered together to develop and improve their leadership skills. Change became a theme in our discussions, and I heard many different perspectives.

In a discussion about changing technology, it was obvious that the younger firefighters had the upper hand. Sure, the younger folk are able to grasp and recall information quickly, but even some of us older folks can zip our way around the new tools in the palms of our hands. I am no expert, but I am no slouch at it either. It is no secret that the generations of firefighters coming into our departments are very tech savvy and can multi-task. I am in awe of our ability to communicate, find information quickly, and get things done. But I wonder if these younger firefighters are smarter than we were, or if they’re just smarter users of technology. Personally, I am excited to see where all this technology will lead, and as a leader, I want to learn more about it. But I worry:

Does this generation of firefighters rely so much on technology that their firefighting instincts won’t develop the same way ours have? 

My old-guy fear is whether the critical knowledge will end when the battery dies or data service is lost during emergencies. Will the newer firefighters’ brains die as well, because they have learned to rely on this technology so much that any interruption in data service may cripple their abilities? The counterpoint to that is that I also feel I need this technology to make me a better firefighter. Intimidation again!

It is a wonderful thing, this technology, and as long as there is an electronic device available, the knowledge, communication, and little reference banks it brings will be at our emergency scenes. But today’s firefighters must understand that although use of these devices can be beneficial, a certain amount of knowledge needs to be stored in their heads. The point I would like to make to the newer generation is that there may be false security in their reliance on smartphone technology; that knowledge needs to be in the old organic brain for use on the fire ground, and not displayed in the palms of their hands.

The fire service will continue to change, and it’s important to be aware that sometimes we get caught up in all the hype. Fire fighting will always be a physical job, requiring thorough training, teamwork and good leadership. For that, we need to have keen instincts and situational awareness of all that is around us.


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services, the second vice president of the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association and a director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. Email him at firechief@grandfallswindsor.com


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