Volunteer Vision: February 2017
By Vince Mackenzie
Being a volunteer fire chief in a small community certainly comes with an unconventional lifestyle. Whether the chief is volunteer or a career chief of a volunteer/composite department, to say the job is challenging most days is an understatement.
Many firefighters and officers don’t realize what the job entails until they are into it. That was certainly a lesson I learned in my first few years as a fire chief. As I listen to new fire chiefs lately, that is a common theme. Being fire chief can certainly take all the fun and excitement out of fire fighting. Few firefighters see what has to be done to keep a department running efficiently from behind a desk, not to mention how little elected officials know about what it takes to keep their fire departments effective.
I am a career chief of a volunteer department, and, frankly, I don’t know how unpaid volunteer fire chiefs do it. There is an incredible amount of time that must be put in to ensure a fire department runs and performs. I know it takes more than the 35 hours a week; I get paid to do it. I tip my hat to all volunteer chiefs who work another full-time job.
I have had the privilege to be involved in fire-service and chiefs associations for more than two decades. Participating in those circles has afforded me the opportunity to realize that the true gravity of a volunteer fire chief job is not clearly understood among full-time fire department chiefs. Those who have come from volunteer fire departments have better insight.
I find myself wondering how we find the time to do budgeting, training, communications, incident response and incident command, training, fire prevention and inspection, specifying equipment, public relations, and advocacy. Many larger fire departments have divisions and persons responsible for these tasks.
Fire chiefs of volunteer departments take on massive roles; some slightly larger communities can afford to pay a person to be fire chief, but then that person constantly struggles to fulfill the requirements. The volunteer tasks now become a paid, full-time job with the responsibility to go with it, and the volunteers say let the paid guy do it. It seems the career chiefs of volunteer departments I talk to endeavor to do better work but then work accomplished typically generates more work, and the snowball begins to roll. The public also sees a paid visible fire chief and then expects the fire department to function as if the whole department is career, indirectly placing higher demands on the volunteers.
Do career chiefs actually do more than volunteer chiefs? Responsibilities are somewhat the same but the capacity and resources to do the tasks are usually smaller, and the frequency of the tasks is usually different. A volunteer chief may buy one new pumper every 10 years, whereas a career department may purchase several every year. But does the specifications and tendering process change much? I would submit that it doesn’t, so therefore I feel volunteer fire chiefs have to be even more on top of their games.
Fire fighting is a 24-hour-a-day job, but so is supporting volunteer firefighters: often their time to interact with the chief is after their own working hours; training is a good example of this.
Recruiting and retaining firefighters is a challenge. Providing continuous, up-to-date training is a challenge. Maintaining everyone’s training levels in respect to safety is an enormous responsibility, then we maintain the communications system to respond. To respond 24 hours a day requires military-like precision; our trucks and equipment require funding to acquire, and then more funding to house, repair and maintain them so they are constantly ready. Then, the chief is responsible for command and control at fires and emergencies and responsible for the aftermath and documentation, along with reporting accurate information to council and the public.
Then there is the administration and the human-relations side of the fire department. We divide our crews into groups and have officers to assist with the day-to-day administration. We have committees structured so that individuals can play a part in the running of fire departments, both out of necessity but also to train personnel to be involved.
Fire chiefs of volunteer fire departments, whether paid or volunteer, are some of the most industrious people I’ve met. I have learned a lot from many with whom I have interacted. Thank you for being there; it is not an easy job, but keep it up. Our fire service is better because of you.
Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince