Volunteer Vision: June 2018
By Tom DeSorcy
Many have heard me quote this saying about the fire service: it’s “150 years of tradition, unimpeded by change.” But that’s not entirely true. There really is change in the fire service – it just doesn’t happen overnight. Believe me, in the last 35 years I’ve seen my fair share of change; it has and does occur on a regular basis, not only in the way we conduct ourselves and the job we do, but the change in the people that do the work itself.
By Tom DeSorcy
The other day I happened to look back on some old photographs from when our fire departments first amalgamated 18 years ago. We had 45 members from three departments, more than we could imagine at the time. Since that time we started to experience what I would refer to as “generational change”. Some of our older members formally retired or simply stopped coming out anymore. Younger members began to step aside as new and more stringent training challenges were being initiated. As I look back at the department that once was, I see tremendous change and growth. Not in numbers but in attitude and ability. Change happened over time and seemingly by itself.
Whether intended or not, generational change happens and it can take many forms. For example, I recall the advent of the paging apps that many fire departments use today to enhance their existing call out or paging systems. This enables a call to show up on your smartphone and you can see who is attending and where they’re coming from without tying up radio traffic. It’s a great idea that we simply couldn’t take advantage of in the beginning because the majority of our members formerly didn’t have smart phones. It’s changes such as these that shape not only the way you do business, but the speed you do it most of the time. You can’t simply force all your members to conform to the future as there are times that you have to wait it out. Then again, you can give it a little nudge. I believe that a lot of the changes we have seen over the years in our department has a lot to do with my moss and grass theory where we did a lot of “grass feeding” and a lot of “moss” left the organization. Today we are all grass, a lot of it green and new but growing in the right direction.
I chair the conference committee for the Fire Chiefs’ Association of British Columbia and noticed in the past we had a fairly large group of retired chief officers that have their own committee. Gradually that committee has dwindled and for the longest time we’ve been trying to figure out why. My theory is that when you consider 85 per cent of our members come from volunteer fire departments, more and more of them, as chief officers, are not “retiring” when they are no longer the chief. More and more are simply stepping back or completely out of the fire service. Life has pulled them in so many directions that they are not really retired at all. The days of the volunteer fire chief keeping the job for life may be gone.
It’s easy for people to let time pass them by. I work in the community I grew up in and had a previous career in radio. Hardly a day goes by when some long-time resident doesn’t comment on when I was on the air. I will often ask, “do you know how long ago that was?” When I tell them it almost 20 years, they are shocked. Longevity can have its benefits as I still learn from the veterans and even find myself pulling advice from my hat when it comes to the newbies. One of my favourite conversations came during a response to a public concern when an “older” gentleman, who was somewhat frustrated at the time, said that he’d been in this town “for 40 years” to which I calmly replied that I’d been here over 50. His demeanour changed but it was then that I realized how long I’d been there myself.
From “baby boomers” to “millennials” or whatever group or category you wish to highlight, generational change will eventually affect all of us and this can be a good thing. This brings up the age-old question as to how you ask a volunteer to move on? How do you suggest they retire in a nice way? I often tell chiefs that want to enact change in some way, shape or form that sometimes you need to just let it happen. Time marches on and we all need to be ready when the opportunity for change presents itself. If you always give in to the notion that situations will always be the same, it means you’re missing out on a chance to realize improvement from within. For most that care to notice, change around our department appears to happen naturally, but I can tell you it’s not an accident.
Like we always say here in B.C., if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute — it’ll change.
Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he was appointed fire chief in 2000. He is very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C., as communications director and conference committee chair. Email Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept.