Fire Fighting in Canada

Volunteer Vision: Know your customer

March 24, 2024 
By Tom DeSorcy

PHOTO: © kali9 / E+ / Getty Images

Volunteer firefighters bring a lot of extra skills to the game. When you consider that every volunteer fire department is made up of many walks of life, from business owners to educators and tradespeople, there is no shortage of talents to draw from. When I ask the question, “do you know your people,” the answer should be “of course I do.”  

For example, take the businessperson that owns a retail store. Chances are they know their customers, or at least they should. Is it safe to say that every person that comes in their store is not only going to buy something, but knows exactly what they are looking for? Probably not. 

A new recruit comes into the firehall and no matter what they bring to the table in terms of life experience or profession, can we assume they just want to be a firefighter? What if their life experience is limited by the fact they are young people that are learning a trade. Maybe this is that trade they are pursuing? Do you treat them any different?

Consider these differences in terms of generations, where the types X, Y, Z are relatively recent conversations. Can anyone tell me where we are now? I don’t recall using the term Baby Boomer in the fire hall, but then again, I could be wrong. No matter how long we’ve been doing it, we can’t assume that everyone feels the same way when it comes to the fire service. They are in our store, and we need to treat them accordingly.


Not only do people not feel the same way, but they may also not have the same priorities in life or learn in the same manner. This has been proven and has forced many a training officer to adapt and rethink their training methods. The lessons of fire fighting haven’t changed but the way people, especially young people, accept and are taught those lessons, has and I applaud those that have recognized and adjusted to this.

This brings me to the challenges of recruitment and retention. First off what is your definition of recruitment? For some it’s the indoctrination and training of new members to the fire department. For others it may be the enticement or selling of the fire service simply to get people to join. What if you think about prospective members as customers. Do we wait until they come into our store, or do we go out there and find them? Once accepted, should we then treat them like the a morning radio show repeating itself to a transient audience, and simply go through the motions to get them on a pager? I don’t think so.  

Recruitment and retention should go hand in hand. There is a sales aspect to the fire service. In fact, every time we go out on a call we are selling this service. Like an advertiser on a morning radio show, this is our audience — the people that we are responding to or those that see us providing service to people in need. Our brand speaks for itself and doesn’t need a lot of selling. Simply by continuing to do our job in a positive and professional manner, interested individuals want to be a part of it all. We are like a radio advertiser.  Everyone is a prospective customer and you just never know when they’re tuning in, but if you are consistent in your approach they will be reached. 

There was a time when it was difficult to give any of our recruits what they wanted. Essentially, we had customers that wanted to buy our product but we didn’t have enough stock. We couldn’t deliver. Today all that has changed. With standardized service levels and a growing reputation for quality, it’s not only an easy sell but our customers feel comfortable and are essentially part of the business as it were.  Sounds strange when it comes to the fire service, but it’s an analogy that makes sense.  

If you feel the need to sell the department then look to the newest members. They are the ones that can spread the word. Give them a good experience from the beginning and the word will get out. Dare I say we need to treat this next generation of firefighters as the influencers that they are?  We need present and future leaders, but we also need the first followers. Today’s consumers share good and bad experiences. Make sure their experience with the fire department worth sharing. 

Tom DeSorcy joined the fire service in 1983 and became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000, retiring in 2023. E-mail Tom at media. 

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