Volunteer Vision: December 2018
By Tom DeSorcy
Reading a piece from a recently retired colleague got me thinking. In particular, a comment about finding something to wear other than a uniform every day once you retire made me think of the power a garment has and the impact it can have on a volunteer fire department.
As a full-time fire chief, my day-to-day dress choices are relatively easy and have been for many years. But, it was the expansion of this apparel that many take for granted.
When I started in this position, I was literally creating a fire department, not from scratch, but from fragmented beginnings out of three different organizations. I myself had no fire management experience and only knew the service as a volunteer firefighter of some 12 years.
I was reminded of some of the steps I took back then when a retired district chief of ours said the other day that one of the best things he thought I did in the beginning was to get uniforms for the department.
In hindsight, it was a key component in us coming together as a team, in building a solid family base and immediately instilling pride in the organization. This included me.
The position I was hired to fill didn’t come with any history. There was no prior established leader in a full-time role and therefore no uniform. In fact, as a newly amalgamated department we didn’t even have a logo or patch. That’s where I learned the benefits of trade shows and networking.
What is the standard, or is there even one? What do other departments do? The closest thing we had to any kind of uniform was what I would call a hockey team jacket with our name on the sleeve. Not much of a uniform, but something you wore around as part of the fire department. We still have something like that, but have gone several steps further.
One of the key components in creating our look was gaining acceptance in the community. If our members weren’t used to a uniform you can bet that the town’s people certainly weren’t. Before I started our mayor at the time didn’t want me in any uniform. Perhaps the mayor didn’t want me to stand out which was, in fact, a testament to the controversy around the position.
After a few obvious encounters it didn’t take me long to realize the benefits of being easily identified. You soon learn that in public service it’s nice to be able to answer the question before it gets asked and when they know who you are, they know what to expect.
Today, the uniform package for our members is standard issue. Yes, there is an expense to it, but it’s now a budget line item for us – a part of doing business, as it were. The volunteers may not wear the uniform every day, but when they do as a group they stand out and look professional.
It’s vitally important for members to realize, too, what that uniform brings. It’s hopefully something that instills pride and respect from both their peers and the community as a whole. In fact, when you’re properly turned out in either personal protective equipment or a uniform shirt, your job is all that much easier, as there is a certain trust factor that goes along with it.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “You wear it well,” and hopefully that’s the case for everyone. I feel that in order to play the part you have to look the part. That’s why I advocate for all departments, big or small, to appropriately outfit their members and go the extra mile and put their chief in a dress tunic.
Is there a downside to a uniform look? Well, there is that added layer of responsibility. The more you look the part, the more you’re expected to perform at a higher level.
Simply put, if this is new for your department then be prepared to be noticed in a good way and the sense of belonging among your members to be raised substantially.
For those of us that have been around for a while, the uniform is more than a calling card or something you have to wear to work every day. As a chief fire officer, I will admit that there are times when I feel that the responsibility can also weigh you down. I had no idea the fire department crests would be so heavy, not to mention the five stripes that adorn the shoulder.
While not a life-safety item, a uniform is essential to the well-being of a volunteer department. A volunteer organization survives as a team and nothing builds that team like pride and inclusion.
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 B.C as communications director and conference committee chair. Contact Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept