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Volunteer Vision June 2017: Exceeding expectations adds new pressures

We all know that the volunteer fire service can be filled with all kinds of pressure and expectations. We have long established ourselves as the go-to service when it comes to emergency and community response. There used to be a time when our fire department responded to a fire, and that was all.

May 24, 2017 
By Tom DeSorcy

Although I’m a career chief and my firefighters are paid on-call, our department is considered to be volunteer. In our case, and countless other volunteer departments, the word volunteer doesn’t accurately describe the role we play. When people hear the title volunteer firefighter, it conjures up the image of a dedicated, community-minded individual who is always available in a time of need. However, the situation for volunteers can be much different than this widely held ideal.

Volunteer means it’s not a full-time job, that volunteer fire service members are not always available to respond when needed. We do not have the time or resources for our department to respond to every call. The reality is: we can’t be there at the drop of a helmet. But as communities are served successfully, expectations inevitably rise.

Let’s face it – we are good at what we do; we do it without complaint and will come back and do it again. As my parents would say, we have “fed the cat.”

When I was a child, a stray cat lived in our neighbourhood. My father would say, “Don’t feed the cat, we’ll never get rid of it.”  Well, I fed the cat. As my father had predicted, the cat came back for more. This little feline soon became my pet, knowing exactly how to use me to its advantage.


Think about the first time you went on a medical call. For our department, it was out of necessity; we weren’t a first-responder department, but someone needed help and we answered. Today, we are part of the first responder program here in British Columbia. However, we aren’t the first on the scene, we simply provide assistance where needed. We did a good job and the cat came back.  

As a full-time chief of a volunteer department, most of my work is behind the scenes, providing the tools and equipment for our firefighters to be safe and successful, all while trying to avoid feeding that pesky cat. Still, there are times we respond to the most obscure incidents that spawn the need for new equipment and operational guidelines.

Every fire department is considered a leader in the community; as the leader within my department, I’ve tried my best not to show too much of myself. I have largely kept my capabilities private. I do my best, but this hasn’t always worked in my favour. This is probably why I am our department’s fire chief, website manager, IT guy and the voiceover talent for the phone system at the municipal office.

If you perform a service just once, it becomes expected. This is how our service went from just responding to fires to responding to almost every call we received. It’s not necessary for us to do this, but our demonstrated ability has expanded those expectations. As a result, those expectations have expanded the nature of our work as a fire service.

Most people do not truly understand fire departments’ capabilities and what our jobs really entail. Many public perceptions are shaped by the media, which also creates unrealistic expectations that are often tough to meet.

Yes, it’s tough, but as an organization, we are very fortunate. Volunteer departments gather many skills and personalities, which brings so much to the table when we serve our communities. I’ve written before that citizens often don’t know who is responding until their child’s teacher shows up in turnout gear.  

Fire departments will continue to evolve and but should you always add every new task to the ever-growing list of services?

Always leave them wanting more has long been my motto. While there are many people in the fire service who leave it all on the table, I’d prefer to have something left behind.  After all, we can only do so much as a volunteer service. That way I’ve always got something to give and I can always contribute, instead of exhausting myself (and my department) by answering every call we receive.  

Once you’ve fed the cat, you’re stuck with it. At that point, all you can do is continue to feed and nurture it, and help the community grow stronger. But remember, you are only so strong yourself.

There will always be hungry cats, but I will continue to do my best not to feed them.

Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he was appointed fire chief in 2000. He is also very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C. as communications director and conference committee chair. Email Tom at and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept

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