Volunteer Vision: November 2016
By Vince Mackenzie
As volunteer firefighters, we rarely stop to think and analyze the culture in our fire departments. While every department has a culture, these cultures can vary from virtuous and healthy to dysfunctional and vicious.
Often, a contributing factor to positive cultures is the persistent effort of a single person valiantly trying to affect positive and virtuous change. That person consequently ends up acting as a spark to a cultural shift and transformation within the department.
I had the pleasure recently to be present as the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) presented annual awards at its conference in St John’s, N.L. Two of the awards were the national career fire chief of the year, and volunteer fire chief of the year. Congratulations to both career chief of the year Steve Gamble of Langley, B.C., and volunteer chief of the year, Cecil Kerr of Gilliams, N.L.
The volunteer fire chief of the year award was especially inspiring to me this year, as the recipient is not only from my province but also from a fire department that had many challenges during its existence, and I knew this first-hand In the early 1990s as a young firefighter, I frequently travelled and trained at the Gilliams fire training site. In fact, I received my level 1001 training and certification at Gilliams. At that time, the site was one of just a handful of smokehouse training buildings in our province that was capable of doing live fire training evolutions and scenarios. This training was mostly conducted by the Fire Commissioner’s Office of Newfoundland and Labrador. The facility was built with government funding in the hope that it would produce economic spinoff for the region as firefighters from all over would come and train. The Town of Gilliams is not a very big community; in fact, the fire department there was small and activity there was all but non-existent when I trained in that community; it was the neighbouring fire departments that were keen to recognize training and used the facility frequently.
While I am sure Chief Kerr had much help transforming the fire department to a viable and vibrant organization, it is quite often the persistence of one person who demonstrates the leadership required to breathe life back into an organization that results in success. Clearly Chief Kerr had demonstrated this leadership and revived this fire department into a solid organization once again. In a community of just 406 residents, this fire chief spent countless hours training his fire department members to their 1001 level. Being a full-time educator, Kerr recognized the core need for training and brought his skills to his fire department. One advantage of volunteer fire departments is that we all bring the skills of our regular day jobs to the fire halls. Therefore, volunteer fire services can sometimes have a great advantage in training and administration. This was evident in the actions and passion of this volunteer fire chief. During the CAFC awards gala, I was pleasantly surprised and proud to witness the fire chief of a department, that I knew was once not very active, receive an national award of excellence.
My hope is that you examine the culture in your fire station and, more importantly, ask yourself if you are contributing to a positive culture in your department, especially if your members lack interest in training drills.
Volunteer firefighters are motivated by several factors and many will look to the leadership of the organization to provide direction. The paradigm shift occurs when the troops become motivated to purposely change the department. Fire services do not typically accept change well; we are sometimes stuck deep in traditions. It takes a good group of leaders to transform any aspect of our profession, but an even greater motivator to transform a stagnant organization into a vibrant one; the resistance from those within your fire department can be overwhelming and a good leader is sometimes the lone wolf.
The desired cultural shift of a fire department is usually a slow to materialize and it really does not become evident for a considerable amount of time. Changing cultures is difficult and it can take a toll on the leader as results don’t present themselves quickly in most cases. All too often we hear of fire department leaders who throw up their hands, give up, and fall back into the old cultural norms, or, even worse, resign their position and walk away.
Advancing Canada’s volunteer fire services requires formal leadership awareness and training;, unfortunately the fire departments that need this training the most are usually the ones that fail to seek it out.
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 him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince