Volunteer Vision: August 2012
By Tom DeSorcy
Recently I was invited to attend a volunteer fair in our community.
By Tom DeSorcy
Recently I was invited to attend a volunteer fair in our community. This was held not only as an appreciation of volunteers in our town, but also to showcase the various organizations that rely on this workforce to survive.
The fair was set up like a mini trade show, with various groups and organizations each given table space and the opportunity to promote what they do and, ultimately, sign up more members. A perfect fit for the volunteer fire department, right? Bring in some paraphernalia, sign up some new recruits. Life is good.
Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. First off, there was not a large turnout. It’s safe to say this was due to the time of day – a weekday afternoon.
As well, the typical visitor to an event like this was already there – behind a table, volunteering – and the demographic most represented was senior citizens. The rest of us were actually paid by the organizations we represented.
So, where have all the volunteers gone? Could it be that giving freely of your time is not desirable anymore? Perhaps people simply don’t have the time to give or could it be that the day is long gone when volunteering meant saying, “I’ll help; just call me if you need me.”
I guess the point is that back in the day, helping out in your spare time was just something you did.
In most homes, just one parent worked and there just didn’t seem to be the distractions we have now. Maybe it was the fact that I grew up in a small town and we didn’t have today’s home entertainment options.
Young families have different priorities now and live in a can’t-send-your-kids-outside-until-the-streetlights-come-on-anymore world. It seems like it’s just easier to stay at home.
I’ve done the demographic check in the fire hall and, unfortunately, we are getting older. We always assumed either that we would be here forever or that someone would come along when needed, but that is not exactly the case anymore. So, are the volunteers lined up at the door of the fire hall to get into your department?
When we say volunteers in the fire service (at least in most parts of Canada), often they’re paid on call, but even then, they’re not beating down the doors and, believe me, we’re not alone. When the local Show and Shine Car Show can’t get people to step up what chance does the fire department have?
With training the way it is now and the risk associated with our business, a volunteer really has to be dedicated to get involved, which is why most of the younger recruits come with an agenda to turn what we teach them into a firefighting career in a larger department. Sure, we gain the best trained firefighters we can get, but we lose the desired retention of a long-serving member of the department. And that older demographic, which is used to volunteering, is not prepared to undergo the regimen we require, and therein lies the problem. Is there a solution?
Let me be a little bold here: To all those departments that continue to be farm teams, that spend lots of money on members only to have them move on, maybe it’s time to think outside the box and put a value on what we offer.
Today, we are providing a service for members as well as the taxpayers, and maybe it’s time we created a demand and stopped giving away this service for free. It appears that the definition of a volunteer has changed; therefore, we should change along with it. Think about what charging an entry fee to join the department would do for retention; people are more likely to be committed to a cause when they have something invested in it. The concept is not new, in fact it’s become commonplace in large events and is particularly important when costs such as uniforms and the like are involved.
This radical concept wouldn’t work everywhere, but if you are fortunate to have the volunteers lined up at the door, then we just may be on to something. At least it beats putting this recruitment ad in the newspaper:
“Wanted: Community-minded individuals for a position in public service. Applicants must be in good physical condition and available on call, to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week with little or no notice. Must be able to operate in a stressful and often life-threatening environment. Successful applicants will be vigorously trained for this non-paying position.”
Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Originally a radio broadcaster, Tom’s voice could be heard in the early 1990s across Canada as one of the hosts of Country Coast to Coast. DeSorcy is married with two children and enjoys curling and golf. He is also very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C as Communications Director and Conference Committee Chair. Email Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca