Volunteer Vision: December 2010
By Vince MacKenzie
Volunteers need to climb on advocacy bandwagon
In his first Volunteer Vision column, Chief Vince MacKenzie comments on the need to create a collective national voice among the volunteer fire service.
By Vince MacKenzie
I am thrilled to contribute to a column that has been a staple of Fire Fighting in Canada. Please indulge me as I take a few lines to express my sincere pride in the volunteer fire service here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Hundreds of firefighters did an admirable job during Hurricane Igor, which ravaged the northeast and southern parts of Newfoundland on Sept. 21. Volunteer firefighters are the last ones to blow their own horns but the stories are trickling back to me about the significant role played by the fire service in hundreds of communities that day. With the exception of paid chiefs in two towns, every one of those involved was a volunteer firefighter. I once heard a quote: “Volunteers can achieve more than any government can ever provide.” Truer words were never spoken.
The topic for my debut column is vision, specifically that of Canadian fire-service associations. Typically, associations are formed to better a cause, to embrace a vision and to form a plan to implement that vision with strength in numbers. Strength in numbers is a valuable asset when trying to effect change with governments. As volunteer firefighters we have a vested interest in the direction of our governments, and consequently, the vision that governments set for the fire service. It is our duty to ensure that this vision is shaped to the realities of society for the common good.
It has been my experience that vision is not something all governments initially have, especially when it comes to the fire service (unless you call maintaining the status quo a vision). We in the fire service think we are stuck in tradition but politics have even deeper roots and politicians have traditional decision making down to a science. We are so often told how undervalued and unappreciated we are. Unfortunately, these comments are not usually followed by active debate in legislatures or Parliament.
One volunteer firefighter tradition that has served us well is the formation of associations to further our causes – some political, some operational and training, and some to improve our function.
In the past year or so, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) has taken a giant leap in its advocacy for a $3,000 federal tax credit for volunteer firefighters. This initiative is not new but, finally, some big-city chiefs are speaking publicly to the need for this tax credit. And there is the difference in the CAFC today: even the career chiefs now understand and support this issue, so now is the time for us little guys to stand alongside them. The tax credit will not come to bear until all politicians see it as a true national issue.
As one who has been kicking around fire-service associations for most of my career, I know that associations work. Associations sometimes get sidetracked and it takes the entire membership to keep the ship sailing in the right direction. We must elect people to our organizations who will work for and champion the cause. We must hold politicians to those accolades they often toss our way – mentioning at dinners and community events how we are a true service to the public – and turn those comments into action by the government of Canada. Our associations are the channels through which to do that.
My vision is a call to action to every one of you. Do you support (to the best of your ability) the association that serves you? Are you a member, and do you actively participate in the initiatives being sought, or merely wait to see what happens? Have you signed the tax-credit petition at www.givefirefighterscredit.ca and forwarded it to all your members?
You can support your associations and add your voice by getting involved. That doesn’t necessarily mean running for office, but when your provincial and national associations ask for support in surveys and petitions, oblige them with your time. Just being a card-carrying member isn’t enough. Volunteers make up 89 per cent of Canada’s fire service and we have much to offer. The political power we hold is incredible if channelled correctly. As volunteer fire departments, we need to seize the opportunity to build. We have a national voice for the fire service and that voice must grow to accurately represent us all.
As the president of a provincial fire services association and a CAFC director, I have seen the provincial associations support their national counterpart, but is that enough? We are volunteers, and to be members of associations often means paying membership dues with fundraised money. Maybe the CAFC board needs to consider that, and perhap use a membership fee scale based on size and population.
A true collective national voice has to come from all, and that means each one of you. Be aware of the issues that are being discussed and debated. Join up and share your input; doing so you will strengthen the push to move fire-service issues forward.
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, the second vice president of the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association and a director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org