Fire Fighting in Canada

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Volunteer Vision: Leaders need training too

October 30, 2019
By Vince MacKenzie

In the volunteer fire service, as a chief officer, it is common to incur a personal cost when expanding your professional development and leadership skills. More than in career services, many small-town fire chiefs have developed administrative skills on their own, or at the very least, in their daytime jobs. Their abilities spill into their role as a volunteer fire officer.

I have had the great fortune, as a career chief of a volunteer fire department, to benefit from many training and professional development opportunities over my 15 plus years. Those opportunities have positively shaped my career and department. My town has been very supportive and I feel I am indeed blessed. I have also had the good experience of voluntarily serving on fire service associations that have helped benefit the community I serve.

In attending a couple of fire service conferences for work in the past few months, I had the opportunity to engage with several hundred fire service leaders from across the country. While I am a paid chief, my employer affords me the time to work at these conferences. Unfortunately, in many cases, when volunteer fire chiefs want to attend conferences they must use personal vacation days from their daytime jobs. Rarely will the daytime employer of a volunteer fire chief allow extra time off for such professional development. So this becomes personal cost number one.

Attending professional development conferences and training events are not free. Registration fees, travel and accommodation cost the fire department valuable training funds. Some departments survive on fundraising to operate, and scarce training funds are usually allocated for more bread and butter operations like fire suppression. Rarely are these funds used to send chiefs off for skill enhancement in administration and leadership. So, therefore, it becomes cost number two.

To spend all the training funds on the needed firefighter task training could be counterproductive. Many times, we don’t recognize good leadership skills and ability until it’s not there. It becomes apparent when unnecessary problems arise in your department. The formal soft skills of leadership are likely lacking in many volunteer departments and we need to find a way to change the thinking in investing in leadership development.

I know that volunteer departments struggle to fund personal development for leadership positions, but rarely do I meet someone who has paid their entire way out of pocket as I recently did. Leaders of volunteer departments do this just to be able to sit in the conference room with their colleagues and learn. This was personal cost number three.

Smaller fire departments need leaders with strong leadership skills and fire service experience more than ever. Many fire departments and their governments fail to realize that it is the smaller fire departments that need to connect and network with other colleagues facing similar challenges. Peer leadership support gets established when these leaders go home with a pocket full of business cards, contacts and ability to call on that same person year-round for advice and assistance.

From coast to coast it seems there is a major lack of participation from volunteer organizations at fire service leadership and training conferences. It is important for volunteer chiefs to familiarize themselves with their colleagues in the career and volunteer sectors. It can be somewhat intimidating for a small town chief to be at a large gathering with bigger departments and career fire services. Listening to large fire departments talk about their woes can seem a little overbearing. Sometimes we sit there and wish we could be a branch on their tree.

Every fire department has their own methods and procedures. As vast and diverse as our communities are, our fire services must be as vast and diverse as well. Our fire service leaders, volunteer or career, must be equally vast and diverse. We need common networking with our peers. It is also beneficial for chiefs of larger departments to be exposed to small departments as well.

If we are to truly grow and unite our fire services nationwide, we need more professional development for volunteer leaders. Otherwise the escalating challenges that volunteer and composite departments face will be all the more difficult to overcome.


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.