Fire Fighting in Canada

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Volunteer Vision: November 2010

It’s sometimes beyond belief – amazing, in fact – that some Canadian fire chiefs are being questioned for their validity.

November 1, 2010
By Tom Desorcy

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It’s sometimes beyond belief – amazing, in fact – that some Canadian fire chiefs are being questioned for their validity. When faced with budget cuts, it seems increasingly easier to chop or eliminate something that conceivably serves no purpose, or at least one that requires full-time remuneration.

What is even more amazing is that, believe it or not, there are people out there who think we don’t do anything at all.

All this time you’ve been going about your fire career as the seemingly beloved fire chief who can do no wrong in the eyes of the adoring public, but the eyes are focusing more clearly these days and the pressure is on. So, why not uncover this entire charade, blow the lid off the secret world of the career chief of a volunteer fire department.

Let’s go inside and reveal the real truth, like the days you leave the office at the usual quitting time, only to be paged to a motor vehicle incident, one with a vehicle on fire and a person trapped inside, at dinnertime. That takes up four hours, plenty of time to get back home and relax just in time for bed because, oh, right, you still have to go to the office in the morning.

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The customers who pay the freight might believe you turn the pager off and head to bed but you can’t do that, can you? So you place that little black box beside the bed and try to go to sleep with the knowledge that it will probably go off – BEEP, BEEP, BEEP – waking you at least four hours before you would normally get up. It may not be an actual call out, just your dispatcher confirming that a particular event is outside of your area or some other call along those lines, and there’s therefore no real evidence in the community the next morning that you were working while the taxpayers slept. You go back to bed and try to sleep, comforted only by the satisfaction that the volunteers weren’t yanked out of bed for that call.

Then there are the times when the neighbour calls your house to say he thinks he has a fire but doesn’t want to call 911 and bother everyone. It’s truly small town stuff, but it happens.

Then, there is always my personal favourite – when staff in the municipal office get excited because it’s Friday!

Does this sound familiar? It’s the world of an emergency manager on call 24/7. It’s a world that few outside the fire service ever see. The bitter truth is that we work for the ratepayers and when people seemingly perform jobs for free, they’re noble heroes, but when someone pays your way, you’d better double the return on their investment so they can feel they’ve got good value.

So, what is the solution?

Well, if you’re like me, you compile a list of those who think you lead a plush, white-shirt, 8:30-4:30 existence, just so you can call them from the side of the highway at 3 a.m. and let them know what you’re up to. OK, my tongue was planted in my cheek when I wrote that and I don’t really do that, but there are times when I’d like to.

When I read in the news recently about career chiefs, in particular of volunteer departments, being questioned about their decisions, it actually made me feel good – I was happy that I wasn’t alone in a world I’ve lived in for more than 10 years.

My career in the fire service began as a volunteer fire chief tasked with amalgamating three area fire departments into one. When it came time to make it a full-time position the cries began: our community was too small to need, let alone afford, a paid fire chief. After all, what needs to be done? Go to the odd fire, put the wet stuff on the red stuff and go home.

Few people realize that it’s chiefs like us who organize the training, plan the budgets, educate the community, perform the inspections, investigate the fires and take the heat if ever anything goes wrong. Managing a volunteer department is not simply being the boss. If the fire department were a business, how long do you think you could operate if you had 35 employees but had only six who show up for work each day – maybe – and if each day you didn’t know which of the 35 you were going to get?

So what’s the solution? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Show people what you do. Bring your volunteers into your administrative world beyond the operation. Let them be the ambassadors to the community.

Sorry to blow your cover, but someone had to say something.

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, aged 28 and 20, and enjoys curling and golf. He is also active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C., and chairs the communications and conference committees. Contact him at TDeSorcy@hope.ca


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