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Volunteer Vision: June 2013


June 4, 2013
By Vince MacKenzie

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Canada’s fire service is a network of firefighters, officers and departments of all types. Training opportunities are growing.

Canada’s fire service is a network of firefighters, officers and departments of all types. Training opportunities are growing. Today’s firefighters have so many of these opportunities at their fingertips that I am envious of the younger generations who are growing up with the Internet, smartphone apps, YouTube and Twitter. When I joined the fire service, training was done in our own department, by the warhorses who came before us. Technology included pinwheel filmstrips and even eight-millimetre film. Magazines were few and far between and training manuals were just catching on. On our training night, we would go out and learn the way “we always did it.” All of our training was steeped in tradition and old habits.

That said, even back then, some of us young firefighters started using technology; VHS became all the rage and we could take training videos and watch them in our own homes. As young firefighters, we were eager to learn all the tricks of the trade and the techniques that those warhorses passed down. I sometimes think back to those times and wonder how we ever got through it without getting hurt more often. Each fire department had its own way of doing things. Portable radios, SCBA and bunker gear were luxuries. Then as we learned more, we, as young firefighters, started to question our own techniques. 

For some time now, I have subscribed to the three Ts of motivation for firefighters:

Technology – When a fire department receives new fitness or training equipment, the motivation to be more active or involved gets turned up for a while. But, once the novelty of the new equipment wears down, so too does motivation. Unfortunately, our budgets don’t allow for new technology every six months.

Training – Training allows us to build confidence and be better equipped to do the job. Training keeps us on our toes; there is always something new to be trained on and it can be done relatively inexpensively.

Tragedy – This motivation always comes too late, but when tragic events happen in our community or fire department, firefighters often vow to make things better and work harder. This motivation is often short lived, as well.

Training is the single most motivating factor that we have to keep our crews engaged.

Firefighters in Atlantic Canada recently had the opportunity to attend the Safe and Effective Scene Management training sessions with Fire Chief Gord Schreiner of Comox, B.C., who toured the eastern provinces at the invitation of the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association. I had the pleasure of spending several days with Chief Schreiner. While travelling with this inspiring chief from a small town on the other side of the country, it became clear to me that our fire service needs more of this type of connectivity. I have attended my share of conferences and I am a firm believer that we all need to spread our wings, open our minds, find good things and bring them back to our departments. What this forward-thinking and experienced fire chief is doing is admirable.

Schreiner’s career mirrors mine; like me, he was a small-town volunteer firefighter, experiencing all the ups and downs of fire-hall politics and the like. Some people reach points in their careers after 25 years at which the tendency is to coast until retirement. Others, like Chief Schreiner, have a passion that keeps growing. After spending time with Schreiner, I found that I had a new mentor. We discussed at length how the fire service was changing and he and I both felt that we were headed for greater successes through training opportunities and connectivity. Gone were the days of fire departments staying in their own little worlds, absorbed in the traditions within their communities and continuing with their bad habits.

The tour, which was nicknamed Stopbad to fit into 140-character tweets better than Safe and Effective Scene Management, included 11 seminars and more than 500 participants. Both Chief Schreiner and I noticed another pattern that was a little surprising: we observed that both senior firefighters/officers and younger firefighters were participating in the sessions. Older firefighters genuinely embraced some of the changes proposed. Tradition was going out the window as part of the tradeoff for a safer and more effective fire service. More importantly though, we were astounded at the enthusiasm from fire officers and chiefs who had 25 to 30 or more years in the fire service. These veterans were the same types of warhorses I had as trainers but they were actually opening themselves up to new things.

The Stopbad tour was a great success, a great lesson in Canadian firefighter training, and, more importantly, served as reinforcement that we still have seasoned veterans out there with the enthusiasm of young rookies, eager to learn and continue to grow. This is a refreshing trend. So, rookies, don’t put the old warhorses out to pasture yet!


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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