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Volunteer Vision: August 2011

As a chief fire officer, I’m constantly being tested, but never as much as I was during an incident this year that put our department on the national stage.

August 4, 2011 
By Tom DeSorcy

As a chief fire officer, I’m constantly being tested, but never as much as I was during an incident this year that put our department on the national stage. I speak of one of our worst fears: responding to a structure fire with confirmed persons trapped, only to find that we aren’t able to go inside and affect a rescue. In our case, the person was an 18-month-old child, and if you are familiar with the story, you will likely know some of the details and the circumstances surrounding them. I’d like to comment on how a test like this can affect you, your department and its place in the community. 

First off, we arrived at about 1:30 that morning of May 5 to organized chaos: a two-storey, multi-family structure, fully involved in fire, in one of two units on the second floor. There were multiple agencies arriving and neighbours were starting to come out of their homes; in other words, it was a typical fire scene. Add to that the cries and screams of a terrified parent whose child was inside the burning building. How would you react? How would your volunteers react in this situation?

Thinking back, as I responded to this question from the media, I said, “It’s what we train for – or at least what we try to train for,” and that’s exactly the way it was handled. Not once, on scene or after the fact, was I questioned about our actions from inside my department. In fact, I experienced just the opposite, as all our firefighters knew they would face certain death should they try to enter the structure, and they all fully understood the command decision to remain external in our initial attack.

While a call such as this is a major test of what we are prepared for, it’s the post-incident activities that take us to a whole new level. I began to do my share of news interviews by phone, starting with a TV hit at 6:30 a.m., then another, and another after that. I wrote here once that you can judge the size of your incident by the number of satellite trucks that show up: we had two by the six o’clock news, and considering we are just two hours from Vancouver, it wasn’t a surprise to see the initial wave of reporters shortly after daybreak, while my phone interviews turned into press conferences.


I was encouraged and somewhat intrigued by what came next: the reaction of our community. No matter where I went, everyone knew the story. People approached me, shaking my hand and asking, “How are your guys?” I saw a true outpouring of care and concern for our firefighters; that was very gratifying, yet I couldn’t help but realize that it seemed as if the community suddenly had a newfound appreciation for its fire department. Not that our community didn’t appreciate us before, but it was almost a shock to realize that we actually have to face situations such as this – so much so that I wanted to say, “Yes people, it’s true, this is what we do.”

Fire burns in Hope, B.C., just as it does in other communities, and tragedies do happen; in fact, more often than most people know. Come to think of it, when I did most of my media stuff that day, I was quite adamant about making the point that our volunteers still had lives to lead. They were off to open their stores, go to their offices or head home to their families; I said this as much for the public to hear as I did for the volunteers. You see, sports coaches don’t just compliment or challenge their players in front of the media for the fans to hear – it’s a way to send a message to their people, and it was important for my firefighters to hear how I speak about them publicly. 

This test was a hard one, but thanks in large part to our families – both here at home and across Canada – it’s one that we will pass. We are truly thankful for the uplifting e-mails and calls from colleagues and the comments made personally and through social media. Yes, we lost one that day, and, as you well know, we don’t like to lose. We’re all parents too, yet I can take a great deal of solace in the fact that I was able to send all of my firefighters home safely to their families, and I hope most people understand that. I saw another side of my department and the fire service on that day in May and, because of it, I’m more proud now than ever of what I do.

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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