Volunteer Vision: Reflecting back and looking forward
By Tom DeSorcy
By Tom DeSorcy
Reflection. Wow, there is another one of those power words like Resilience, Change or Inspiration. Words that good leaders have emblazoned on their foreheads, or that we’d like to believe is the case.
For me, words in general are important and can mean a lot (both good and bad), and can be different when written or spoken. In broadcasting, I worked in the theatre of the mind and the way you spoke often was more important than what you had to say. The same is true when I “reflect” on what I’ve done in all my careers. At times, the most important person we have to lead is ourselves.
Life triggers so many emotions to a point where those windows of opportunity often turn into mirrors and we find ourselves looking back. This is is a chance to pause and reflect on what you’ve become through the choices you’ve made and the cards you were dealt.
In March of 1983 I joined the fire service here in Hope, B.C. I recently found a copy of some meeting minutes from that time, where I was invited, voted on and accepted as a member. That’s right, “accepted.” There were no recruit drives or Answer the Call campaigns back then.
That was 35 years ago, and while I did take some time away for five years to pursue major market radio, I’ve spent more than half my life in the fire service, which the has been my full-time career for the past 18 years.
It seems like yesterday that we were always handing out the long service awards for 20-plus years. That’s because once you joined the volunteer service, it became your life, especially in a small town. Your role wasn’t a cumbersome one, really. The department probably spent more time organizing community events than actually responding to incidents. It was easy to be a part of this family.
Today it remains easy to be a part of this family, however it takes its toll in particular on the volunteers. Somehow, as the times changed, life became more complicated and there are many things to blame for this. Largely a matter of opinion, mind you, but lots of places to point fingers. Public expectation comes to the top for me.
I think I was unique in 1983 in that I joined the fire department when I was rather young. In fact, I had just graduated from high school three years earlier. I was the ‘kid’ of the crew there, largely because my dad was also a member. The department realized it needed to get younger and I guess I was the beginning of a youth movement of sorts.
More about expectation: Today we are quick to point to the taxpaying public that they expect a lot from their public services, whether they are paid or volunteer. In the 1980s the volunteer fire department became just as expectant. I don’t know if that was the nature of the business at the time, but I could sense that feeling of demand. The town itself was changing and we started to feel the pressure. The department itself began to demand more, in terms of money and recognition. The town office was largely responsible for department administration, which was minimal and in stark contrast to our two neighbouring departments. Now I lead all three departments as one.
Perhaps it was the fact that my original department was part of a municipality and the other two were governed by a regional district that formed each department from the ground up, with residents leading the charge and building the halls. In comparison, we had an existing building and were largely made up of public works employees. The trucks themselves were often used as public works vehicles.
When we went from a community fire siren to a pager system, I think that’s when the community stopped realizing what we really did. The old fire sirens were not only a signal to the members that there was a fire but a notice to the community, especially in the summer to turn off your lawn sprinklers as the fire department might need the water. You also knew why that car behind you had their four-way flashers on.
Eventually, the community stopped knowing when we were out responding. Actually, that’s not entirely true. They knew we had a call if the bay doors were open. That’s right, we didn’t have automatic doors nor did we stop to shut them – truly a different time.
The spring is recruit time for many of us, and while we spend more time on applicants today, I still can’t help but reflect on past practice. That mirror soon turns back into a window of opportunity as we welcome another generation to create memories of their own.
Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he was appointed fire chief in 2000. He is the communications director and conference committee chair for the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C. Email Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept.