Volunteer Vision: May 2019
By Vince MacKenzie
By Vince MacKenzie
I recently had the opportunity to return to an elementary school classroom to teach some fire safety and interact with the students. After years of being off the official public education school circuit, I realized very quickly how much I missed being in the classroom teaching public education.
My role now as a fire chief kind of puts me behind a desk a lot and all the tasks I once did slowly are delegated away and administration becomes more and more demanding.
This opportunity got me thinking of how, when I first joined my local volunteer fire department as a young man more than three decades ago, my impression of the fire department was through a young person’s eyes. I also entered the volunteer profession following in my father’s footsteps and already knowing what the lifestyle consisted of through my father’s mentorship.
I wanted to be a firefighter all my life, and now that I have been, I now realize my somewhat miscalculated illusions then were of just fighting fires, serving the community and being a part of a team.
Like most of us who join the fire department, we just want the excitement of the calls and the feeling of greater self-worth from community service, and experience the pride of being called a firefighter. My views have changed somewhat as I’ve progressed through my career.
As young firefighters, we often don’t realize the importance of every firefighter being a public fire-safety educator. Let’s face it, many times firefighters just want to do all the exciting stuff, train and answer calls, and be firefighter’s firefighter.
Who has time to preach and educate the public when we are too busy just fighting fires and/or evil dragons?
The role of public education is most likely the farthest thing from your mind. We enjoy answering the calls so much we kind of want more, not less. The public education role also seemed to be passed down to the other less-experienced firefighters as the “real” members typically strayed away from the fire station tours and dealing with young children or the opportunity to be in front of a crowd and lecturing. It became a chore more than a calling.
Early in my volunteer career, I started to get involved in teaching youth about firefighting as I was involved in a few youth groups like the scouting movement and high school outreach programs outside the fire department.
Captain Robert Down asked me to develop a high school fire-prevention program for our local department of which I’m proud to say is still an annual program three decades later. Then, in 1994, I was selected by the NFPA to receive a Learn Not to Burn champion award and traveled to Boston and received official pub-ed training on the curriculum. This was another career-changing experience because I received comprehensive training from NFPA and then set off to pilot the curriculum in schools, my community and, for the first time, officially in our province. I saw first-hand the power of public education as our community embraced fire safety.
Now, I want to convince you that our first and foremost duty is to educate the public in fire safety. That is one of the only guaranteed ways we, as firefighters, truly save lives every day.
Contrary to my young firefighter notions that I will rescue someone from the grips of death in the nick of time, I can tell you I have yet to experience that. It certainly does happen to some as a part of duty, but I believe true life-saving comes where we can not accurately tabulate the save. That is, when a fire did not occur because we educated someone beforehand.
When the alarm sounds and we roll up the fire hall doors to respond, we have already lost the battle. It’s a public education fail. Another fire is occurring and lives and property are in immediate danger.
How many times have you given advice over the charred remains of someone’s property that we just extinguished? It’s an unfortunate time to have to educate the individual don’t you think?
The recent classroom opportunity afforded me the opportunity to walk away thinking that the fire-safety lessons taught to the kids was timeless in its message. Someday, every student will reflect on it when they are faced with a fire emergency and the opportunity for failure or save. Being the chief might be busy, but never too busy to educate.
Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. 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 email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince.