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Volunteer Vision: June 2011

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Standards for sustainability?
Fire-service standards are a good thing, but are national standards relevant to the sustainability and growth of the volunteer fire service? Vince MacKenzie discusses in his Volunteer Vision column.

May 18, 2011
By Vince MacKenzie

I was honoured to be invited to a summit in Washington, D.C., this winter about the future of the volunteer fire service, hosted by the Volunteer and Composite Officers section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. As I departed for the United States, I vowed to be as open-minded as possible and to absorb as much as I could. I knew the three-day summit would be interesting but it was also eye-opening.

The 140 participants were divided into groups to deal with nine fire-service issues: capabilities and competencies; community relationships; recruitment; retention; organizational structure; business model and priorities; legislation and regulations; reputation management; and delivery of fire and life safety services. I was delighted to be in the reputation management group. My February column was about that very issue and I was glad that many of my views were confirmed. Most of all, however, I was revitalized by the closing session, when the nine groups presented their respective reports. Some of the ideas presented offered a fresh – and mostly positive – perspective on what the future holds for the volunteer fire service.

One of the presentations in particular knocked me back in my seat. The presenter spoke of national fire service standards and quoted author and U.S. founding father Thomas Paine, who said, “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” I couldn’t help but think that the volunteer fire service has fallen victim to this habit. All through my career, I’ve understood that the fire service has been measured according to standards set by one group or another. While in my first year as a volunteer firefighter, a change was made to SCBA, switching to positive pressure regulators from demand-only regulators. Because our SCBA didn’t meet the new, safer standard, I remember my volunteer department trying to convert everything right away, because it seemed so important to do so. Yet it still took a budgeting program and a couple of years to comply. I now realize that the fire service has been playing catch-up to one standard or another for my entire career and I don’t expect this will change soon. 

I am all for progress and safety, but given the context of what was said in Washington that day regarding the fire service’s relationships with standards, I saw deep into one of the fundamental issues surrounding the sustainability of the volunteer fire service.

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Please don’t shoot the messenger, but it occurred to me that day that current fire-service standards have not contributed to the growth or sustainability of the volunteer fire service. National standards are sometimes viewed as irrelevant by volunteer fire services, especially those without the funding to do anything about the standards. It has become apparent over many decades that these measures are unattainable for most volunteer fire departments.

How many of your volunteer firefighters are certified to meet the current 1001, which has been around since 1974? These standards are not law in many jurisdictions but merely guidelines and goals. How many of you (in the volunteer fire service) have reached these goals? NFPA 1720 (Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations by Volunteer Fire Departments) has been in place for 10 years. Do all volunteer fire services now meet this criteria? When the new standard revision comes out, will we all hurry to catch up? Is it even feasible to think we all can?

When has a new edition of a standard lowered the cost of anything? It seems that when new standards come in, costs go up and compliance goes down. Standards have helped us measure our performance and they have given us direction, but have we reached the goal?

Have organizations set these standards with the sustainability of the volunteer fire service of the future in mind? I am positive the standards are made with the most honourable of intentions, but will we ever see all (or even a good portion) of the volunteer fire service comply. Can small-town Canada honestly be expected to keep up at meagre funding levels, declining enrolment, increased demand? I don’t have the answer; I am asking you the question. If we do aim to reach those goals, then a new source of funding, possibly from all levels of government, better be coming forthwith.

I believe standards should be in place, but I also believe that if they are used to instil change, then our ability to meet the standards should be measured to determine compliance with them. Once that is measured effectively, our respective governments can determine a course of action. 

I suspect that after reading this you may be as set back in your chair as I was that day in Washington. Is it time for the fire service to revisit its thinking about standards and instead shoot for guidelines that are formulated with the sustainability of the volunteer fire service in mind?


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