Volunteer Vision: December 2009
By Brad Patton
I need to start with an apology to all “big” volunteer/composite fire departments. In my bio at the end of this column, I wanted to emphasize that the Municipality of Centre Wellington, with a population of almost 29,000, is protected by an all-volunteer firefighting force. I believe this to be in the top 10 to 20 per cent of volunteer departments responsible for a population of that size
By Brad Patton
I need to start with an apology to all “big” volunteer/composite fire departments. In my bio at the end of this column, I wanted to emphasize that the Municipality of Centre Wellington, with a population of almost 29,000, is protected by an all-volunteer firefighting force. I believe this to be in the top 10 to 20 per cent of volunteer departments responsible for a population of that size. The original bio was edited and that changed the intended meaning. Fire Fighting in Canada and I apologize for any confusion. Strictly looking at the number of volunteers, we are small, with a staff of 60 volunteer firefighters running about 500 emergency runs a year. I hope this clears up any misunderstanding.
It’s budget time for many departments and I thought I’d pass on some thoughts in that regard. Volunteer departments operate with motivated people wanting to help their communities. These people join to become firefighters and give up a great deal to serve their communities, as I have mentioned in other columns. I believe volunteer firefighters sacrifice more for the well-being of a community than any other group. Our job is to encourage this type of behaviour. Volunteer/part-time firefighting rescue departments or companies are extremely cost efficient but the service isn’t free nor should it be. Our firefighters invest an enormous amount of time and energy to help others and for that investment to continue there should be rewards.
Those rewards come in several different packages and that, my friends, is where the budget comes in. Volunteer firefighters need, deserve and greatly appreciate good equipment. It’s one thing to ask someone to jump out of bed or drop what they are doing to rush to someone’s aid and another to give them a 25-year-old tool to use. Outdated and unsafe equipment equals poor morale, high turnover, unsafe conditions and high liability risks.
All your equipment should be inventoried and recorded on a spreadsheet that includes a description of each item, the station to which it is assigned, the quantity, the life expectancy, the value in present dollars and a 10-year forecast indicating when the equipment is to be replaced, complete with grand totals at the bottom of each year’s column.
Initially this will be a lot of work but it will allow for greater planning and better financing. This is the same practice that should be done for vehicle replacement forecasting. This should become a 10-year capital forecast for equipment replacement, depending on your finance department’s practice.
The other item that has to be budgeted for is compensation. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a point system, have hourly wages or your firefighters receive an annual cheque – you need to budget something that rewards your firefighters in a meaningful way. I strongly encourage fire chiefs, councils and fire boards to provide firefighters with the best remuneration package that can be afforded. It is one of the best investments your town can make.
We have a staff appreciation account that allows for the purchase of t-shirts, hats and jackets. This account can start off small but should grow. Volunteer firefighters are proud of what they do and should be, so a nice t-shirt with your department’s logo on it is another considerate way of saying thank you. There are many other ways to use this account; for example, an annual barbecue, Christmas gifts and so on.
Often, building maintenance budgets are forgotten, Fire stations are like any other piece of equipment. They need repairs and updating on an annual basis. Upgrading furnaces, toilets, installing dishwashers and updating kitchens and showers have a big impact on morale and can save money in their efficiencies. We just changed our glass overhead doors to insulated doors with one row of thermal-pane windows. These doors will pay for themselves in four to five years.
Large-ticket items such as new fire stations or additions, apparatus, breathing air compressors and so on may need to have reserve accounts set up to reduce the impact on budgets. As an example, a breathing air compressor cost of $20,000 plus $10,000 for construction and preparation of a room for the installation brings the total cost of the project to $30,000. Setting up a reserve account that annually receives $6,000 may be more affordable, and funding this kind of project over several years makes it easier for councils or fire boards to accept and approve. The added benefit is that the firefighters will know that new equipment is coming and that there is a plan.
Councils, fire boards and committees need to understand the sacrifices that volunteer firefighters make for their communities. Volunteer firefighters need to be outfitted, equipped and rewarded for their efforts because the alternative is higher labour costs, higher liabilities and unsafe conditions for the public and the firefighters. As chief officers we need to be able to communicate efficiently and effectively during budget deliberations. Our communities and our dedicated volunteer firefighters are counting on it.
Brad Patton is fire chief for the Centre Wellington Volunteer Fire Rescue Department in Ontario. Centre Wellington, with a population of 28,000, covers 410 square kilometres and has stations in Fergus and Elora.