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Volunteer Vision: March 2013


March 4, 2013
By Vince MacKenzie

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In the United States, Americans refer to fire houses, but here in Canada the words fire hall are more common for buildings in which it all happens for us.

In the United States, Americans refer to fire houses, but here in Canada the words fire hall are more common for buildings in which it all happens for us.

Fire halls come in various forms; some are modest, unassuming buildings while others can be great monuments of esthetic pride and symbolism in their towns and villages. One thing most fire halls across our country share is the familiar scent of the apparatus bays; it must be the combination of machinery, vehicles, rubber hose, stale smoke and concrete floors. For me, that fire-hall smell is perfume to my soul; it is our fragrance, the scent of service. The public may not share the same passion for that scent as I do, but for firefighters, it is one thing that links all fire halls nationwide, large or small, volunteer or career.

Fire halls have a knack for becoming bustles of activity in the blink of an eye – they are just a horn blast or pager tone away from becoming the focal point of all things important at that time; the walls and the doors of a building that often sit idle are quickly invaded and suddenly filled with the highest level of noisy, urgent and important activity.

I grew up a son of a dedicated, long-time volunteer firefighter; I was a fire brat, a kid who admired everything about the fire hall and the equipment contained in it. The building stood as the protector of all that surrounded it. What impressed me the most about the hall was the people who worked out of it; as a boy, I admired each and every one of them and I was proud to say I knew them all personally. They were more than Dad’s friends; they were firefighters, and, to a boy of young age, they could do no wrong. Exposure to a variety of personalities, and never-ending opinions on everything from fire fighting to local politics, family, current events and history, has unquestionably formed my values and beliefs.

In small-town Canada, the fire hall often becomes the social centre, hosting functions that range from parties and banquets to weekly card games and exercise classes, and town-hall meetings. When tragedy strikes a community, the fire hall often becomes the safe haven – a place of refuge. I have witnessed this countless times, locally and nationally, and it was highlighted again during the horrible multiple shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

It is no wonder that many consider the activity level within a fire hall to be a barometer of a town’s economic and social success, and, consequently, an indicator of community spirit. Many volunteer fire halls are the backbones of the communities they serve, along with churches and service groups. Community service groups such as Lions and Kinsmen have experienced steady declines in membership; some of their buildings have closed and many service clubs have turned to hotels and fire halls for their meetings.

So, what is the meaning in all this for you? This column is not about buildings; it is a testimonial to all of you who serve in them, my salute to the men and women who regularly cross the thresholds of their local fire halls and are a special breed. After all these years, I am more impressed now than ever by those who take on duties that most people today would not dare to allow to interrupt their personal lives.

I have seen volunteer firefighters through many lenses, from boyhood admiration to a proud comrade in arms. Now, I enjoy the vantage point of a fire chief and long-time provincial association executive. I have had the opportunity to observe volunteer firefighters from many different perspectives; I was even once a humbled recipient of service when I experienced a house fire of my own.

Sometimes, as a volunteer firefighter, you may question your desire to serve, or feel that negative energy drag you down. I know it gets very hard to do this job at times – especially during Canadian winters – and it would be easier to walk away.

In last month’s Volunteer Vision, my co-columnist Tom DeSorcy wrote about issues surrounding recruitment and retention and his new perspective on what volunteers derive from giving their time and energy to the fire service. We both started as volunteers and are both now career chiefs of volunteer departments. I think that having been longtime volunteers defines us as fire chiefs and makes us better because we understand that sense of duty. I admire, support and advocate for my department’s volunteers, as does my colleague, who I think may have sold himself a little short in his humility.

You are indeed a rare breed, and you inspired me to take the time to express my deepest pride in you. Watching the news in the United States about the shooting of volunteer firefighters, and reading the stories in this magazine and at www.firefightingincanada.com about lawsuits and Ministry of Labour charges and budget cuts, has made me appreciate even more the men and women of the Canadian fire service. Please stay the course and encourage others to follow. Our future depends on you.


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Service and a director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. E-mail him at firechief@grandfallswindsor.com and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince


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