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Volunteer Vision: Health and safety first for new recruits

February 4, 2020
By Vince MacKenzie

My department just started another recruitment of volunteer firefighters. While there are many different ways to recruit and accept new members, many departments are steeped in tradition on how members are taken in. Yet, sometimes these traditions are not always the best way to proceed. I remember a time when you joined a department and were simply given a pager and told to respond to the next call. That was the way I was taken in and now I cringe at the thought of anyone doing that today. Can you imagine joining up to do one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and be given no training or orientation to do it? Those acts can be considered criminal when someone is injured.

The recruitment of volunteer firefighters is an ever-changing process and we know that the abundance of persons willing to volunteer are not as plentiful as they once were. The time it takes to be a member of today’s fire departments often discourages many members of the public to consider us as a place where they want to spend a lot of time. Also, with the growing awareness of the personal safety and mental health challenges of first responders, fire departments have to develop better ways to recruit.

In my department, we start new recruits off with a safety orientation before they do any firefighter training. They start with me, as chief, and I spend the first few sessions with them on nothing but their health and safety and that of their crew. They hear it right from the top first.

Of all the tasks I do as a chief, I always consider all our firefighters’ safety as the No. 1 priority. I lead safety training during the recruits’ first few sessions to stress the importance of safety as a culture. It’s key that the first exposure to safety come from the top — the chief. Doing so helps establish safety as our core value.

In the process of teaching, I start listening to my own words and I get humbly reminded of the great responsibility chiefs bear in the protection of their crews. As I lecture the recruits, I find myself being reminded that we hold a special role in their safety that can’t be taken lightly.

If you are a leader in a volunteer department, you know there are many different tasks that need to be tended to in order to keep your fire department running. As the chief, it is all too normal to have your time on tasks distracted with other files from time to time. It is during these times that I ask you to remember that safety comes first.

As you probably know from reading my columns, I am the full-time chief of a composite/volunteer department. In the course of my daily job as a full-time chief, I learned and gained an incredible respect for those of you who are totally unpaid volunteer chiefs. With the volume of work that needs to be tended to, I frequently ask myself how anyone could effectively do the job as a volunteer — especially those that work full-time positions in their paying jobs.

I know that many of you do great job running your department. You run it effectively because you do it with a tremendous amount of dedication and duty that can never be measured on a payroll. Leadership in a fire department takes time. Attending to all the tasks will require an incredibly large percentage of a person’s life. It’s no wonder we get overwhelmed at times and that’s why teamwork is certainly the key in all our departmental duties. Having a solid team is critical to a fire department’s success and for lowering stress levels. Teamwork is a way to protect your mental safety as well. Invest and empower your people to engage in the many tasks, be it budget and training, personnel issues, council lobbying, public education, code and enforcement… the list seems to go on and on. During the chief’s year, there are usually some large projects to be worked on such as a new truck or new fire station and it can seem that there is little time to put out fires.

For me, the bricks, mortar and equipment stuff can be much easier than managing personnel. But it is our people that make the whole thing work. It is all too easy to get distracted by the tasks and temporarily lose sight of our people’s requirements. They require safety and training in everything they do.

The most important takeaway of this column is to remember that, of all the tasks you do, it’s the safety of your crew that comes first. As a leader, own safety. As a department, we all own safety together. Sometimes I think we just need a little reminder of that.


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld. 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 Vince at firechief@townofgfw.com and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince.


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