Volunteer Vision: A collective voice
June 1, 2020 By Tom DeSorcy
COVID-19 has added yet another notch in our tool belt. It has hit hard and, as always, the fire service was there to take it on. As part of the emergency response framework in our communities, this required a full response. Granted, nothing was burning but this speaks to the all-hazards approach we use today. Though, historically, we’ve had other pandemics, this one is different. Ask yourself: Was there ever a time you considered you’d be on the same call as every other fire chief in Canada?
During events like SARS and H1N1, did the fire service have as big an involvement as they do today? Were fire departments as embedded in medical response as most are today? I know locally, we didn’t. This event has prompted our provincial and national associations to remind government bodies that fire departments are valuable members of the healthcare system in Canada.
Emergencies and disasters will always put a strain on any fire department, however the volunteer service stands to be hit even harder at times like these. Concerns around retention and recruitment will now be even stronger moving forward. As communities strain economically, it stands to reason that volunteer fire departments will also struggle. How many have had or will have members not want to be involved anymore or simply not be able to continue for various reasons? Will recruitment suffer or did you have recruits in the stream when training was suspended?
From the beginning I considered staffing concerns. I was quick to realize, in the volunteer service, we’re always concerned about staffing. There are times, under normal circumstances, when it’s tough to put a crew together. But, especially in times like these, mutual aid can be your best friend.
What we learn from any incident — and this should be no exception —defines us as a department. Namely, the way we responded amid the chaos and uncertainty. The feeling of pride that we instilled in each of our members as we joined other emergency responders shows our support to healthcare workers; the way we soldiered on without question. There is always something to be said for the “take-aways” after any incident. COVID-19 is no exception. Will this change the way you respond or will you simply have to respond to change? The smart money says we’ll do both.
During this worldwide pandemic, I realized I’ve never felt closer to our fire family. Interestingly, I realized, this is likely because we were apart. We took the fabric that binds our organization and tore it apart. We didn’t train, we didn’t hang out, we connected only by electronic means. It was very difficult. Ironically, calls slowed down as well and it was something that the volunteers began to look forward to more than normal.
As mentioned earlier, we took part in a hospital salutes with other emergency services. The first salute was also the first time we had seen each other in a while. Of course, with minimum staffing on trucks, we couldn’t have everyone there but there was no shortage of those wanting to take part. Not only was it awesome to be a part of it and show our support for all our healthcare workers, it was good for our souls as we regained the feeling of pride. These visits were the psychological boost we all needed.
That brings me to another outcome of all of this: the mental fatigue we all went through, and some may still be going through. Was it the feeling of uncertainty? Maybe the fact that this wasn’t a fire in that we had full control but when you think of it, the response was so “fire-like”.
Was the volunteer fire service well suited to deal with COVID-19? I think we were and I think we are. We are strongly supported by our provincial and national associations who, not only gave us the tools and information we all needed, spoke loud and clear as a collective voice for all fire departments across Canada. I urge departments to keep connected to these associations and keep asking questions.
This year, 2020, marks my 20th year as a career fire chief and when you take in my time as a volunteer firefighter, more than half my life has been spent in this service. Needless to say, this time will live on in history and the legacy we take away from this year, this event, will serve to guide each and every one of us from here on.
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. Tom is very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of British Columbia as communications director and conference committee chair. Contact Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept
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