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Volunteer Vision: February 2011

Are you afraid to use the M word around your fire hall? That’s right, I’ll say it . . . motivation. The word is thrown around quite regularly in the career officer ranks, but I wonder about the volunteer fire halls. Is motivation something that you, as a career chief, work at?

February 8, 2011
By Tom Desorcy

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Are you afraid to use the M word around your fire hall? That’s right, I’ll say it . . . motivation. The word is thrown around quite regularly in the career officer ranks, but I wonder about the volunteer fire halls. Is motivation something that you, as a career chief, work at? Do you take steps to actively motivate your volunteer firefighters? Do you feel the need to explore the theories and hierarchies of motivation or bring in speakers and coaches to keep everyone on your team pumped up?

If that’s the case, then good for you, because it seems to be harder these days to help the team stay focused. Then again, maybe you’re not doing anything at all – at least, not on purpose. 

Take a look around at some the exceptional people you have on your side and tell me you’re not motivated every day. It’s no secret that we face challenges in the volunteer fire service, and these challenges make it increasingly difficult to keep our players (and their heads) in the game. 

High on that list of challenges is call volume. How do members stay motivated as part of a team that doesn’t scrimmage? If you’ve played sports, you know the benefits of a lot of practice, but it sure is nice to play a real game once in a while.

The fact is that we don’t go on fire calls every day and, unlike our colleagues in many urban centres, our trucks aren’t constantly running and our people aren’t always using the gear and equipment.

Career halls respond to fires, medical calls – you name it. I would hazard a guess that engines in many career departments don’t have a chance to cool down before the next call. In many volunteer departments, not rolling out regularly makes it harder to maintain that state of readiness: therefore, it’s that much more important to use training time to cover off the little things that can easily be forgotten. It’s called fire practice for a reason, right? Those departments that don’t get a call for weeks at a time can appreciate this challenge, but how about those departments that can go years without a run? It sure makes you wonder how departments like that stay motivated, and it’s remarkable that they do.

If it’s not a lack of calls that drags down morale, it may be too many calls. Even the types of calls can weigh heavily on the volunteer staff. Take the overworked scenario, for example. While some departments may not get a call for a long stretch, there are some that get four or five calls in a weekend. How’s your motivation level now? Check with your member who just happens to own a business and see how he feels about leaving his store for the third time in a day. How do you motivate that individual?

Calls such as false alarms and CO detectors can also be an issue. But for chiefs of volunteer departments, simply seeing the members show up at 2 a.m. on a cold winter night for stuff like that, especially when the alarms are continually false, is motivation in itself. 

That’s why I think it’s so important to look within your department. To start, think of how you can draw personal motivation from your volunteers. As a career chief of a volunteer department, I go to work every day as a firefighter. I live it and breathe it everywhere I go. I often pause and reflect on what motivates me and my volunteers. It doesn’t take long for me to realize that it’s those pressures and strains that are unique to the volunteer or rural fire services that keep me charged.

For most of us, serving small communities is a key motivator. Have you ever considered that each and every one of your firefighters volunteers for the same reason? Think how it must feel for your crew to respond when called upon to help someone in their community. There in itself is one of the greatest motivators in a fire department. Because we are mostly located in smaller communities, we know a lot of the people we protect. When that pager goes off, someone with whom we are personally acquainted may need our help. So what if it’s that third false alarm – we know the elderly resident down the street likes to cook and tends to burn the toast a lot, or maybe she just likes to have the firefighters drop by. Regardless, chances are we’re OK with that in a small town.

Motivation comes in many different forms and it tends to sneak up on us. The key is recognizing and capitalizing on that motivation that may be unique to those of us in smaller communities.


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 27 and 19, and enjoys curling and golf. He is also very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C., and chairs the communications and conference committees.


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