Volunteer Vision: February 2013
By Tom DeSorcy
All this talk about recruitment and retention has made me think long and hard about how and why we do what we do. It’s something that I’ve thought about for a while, but as I networked with colleagues in St. John’s, N.L., at Fire-Rescue Canada in September, the light came on.
By Tom DeSorcy
All this talk about recruitment and retention has made me think long and hard about how and why we do what we do. It’s something that I’ve thought about for a while, but as I networked with colleagues in St. John’s, N.L., at Fire-Rescue Canada in September, the light came on. I know what you’re thinking and, yes, this is something that inevitably happens after almost every conference. Some might wonder if it was the outpouring of East Coast hospitality that eased my mind and caused me to change my attitude, but I honestly started to take a different look at our world. Could you call this a revelation? Perhaps it’s more of a realization or an understanding, or simply a better perspective.
In the fire service, there are various forms of firefighters and officers. In the broadest sense, there are those who derive their primary income as firefighters and those who don’t. However, when you delve a little deeper, it becomes a little more complex. On the career side, there are firefighters and officers who work on scheduled shifts and then there are people, like me, for whom the pager is never turned off. In the volunteer ranks, there are paid on-call firefighters and those who are entirely unpaid. Some volunteer or paid on-call departments have platoons, but most are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. My focus is with this latter group and how I’ve started to take a different look at those who make up our ranks.
It was the early 1980s when I joined the fire department. I got my pager and a key to the hall the first night I showed up and I had yet to do any training, but any fear or uncertainty I had was quickly replaced with excitement. I was eager for that pager to tone up. I lived and breathed the department. Like the rest of you, my clothes were put beside my bed from then on. When I became a career fire chief, that passion continued. It’s safe to say I’m not alone.
Tell me that you don’t have a portable radio on all the time at home, constantly monitoring the channels. Try to make me believe that your ears don’t perk up when you hear sirens. It’s also probably hard to find a t-shirt in your drawer that doesn’t have the word fire on it. We’re proud of what we do. So what about my revelation and how it applies to recruitment and retention?
While it seems that I’m always in fire mode, I’ve come to realize that maybe I shouldn’t paint the volunteers with the same brush. I know they, too, live for the call – some more than others – and while they love to practise, they do also like a good game now and again. But did it ever dawn on you that they have lives of their own, jobs and professions at which they don’t think about fires and calls all day long? It’s not that the volunteers aren’t passionate about what they do and I’m more than happy to accommodate their love for this business; I just hope I haven’t been overlooking something for all these years.
I suppose my revelation really is that, in my early days, spots on the department were hard to come by and I considered myself very lucky to be involved at all and, in most cases, that rings true today. However, as members become harder to recruit and retain, it’s more important than ever to pay attention to quality – not only in the members, but also in their fire experience as part of our families.
Being a fire chief is my life and has been for many years. I do this every single day, whether I’m in town or not. My firefighters, on the other hand, do not, and although I know they would love to, they do have other lives. I am more than prepared to give them all the fire service they can handle, but I now recognize that I must be prepared to give them space should they need it. It’s easy to forget that they have other careers, but the service they give to us should never be taken for granted. I’ve always tried to respect the time the volunteers are able to give me and to thank the members of our department after every call. Sure, I know the volunteers want to be there, but I want them to know that I realize how lucky I am that they do.
The culture of the fire service will always remain and I will always treat our members with that sense-of-pride attitude with which I was raised, ever mindful that what I do is not only an honour, but also a privilege.
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 and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept