Volunteer Vision: Peer connections in the age of covid
By Vince MacKenzie
By Vince MacKenzie
We are firefighters at a point in history that will be one of the most looked-back-on eras since Sept. 11. We are literally in the midst of the history that you will be referring to and reminiscing back on when we tell our firefighter stories to new recruits. While the world faces a global emergency unprecedented in a century, our fire departments have continued to respond and protect our community.
In your little corner of Canada, whether it is a large or small town, your fire fighting career has been affected by this new normal. You may argue that your response to an emergency call is the same as always, but it truly is not. As we receive and respond to a dispatch, we execute the standard tasks as trained to do for our response. We become preoccupied with the automatic rush to respond safely and quickly. Pandemic complications add an extra layer of complexity to our response safety. I’ll admit sometimes our response routine is so ingrained, that I find it challenging to remember the covid precautions as I am in the response frame of mind.
We have been presented a great opportunity to learn and grow in ways that we traditionally have not in the past. The delivery of regular training for firefighters has somewhat changed as we adapt to social distancing and limiting crew sizes. Large training events, seminars and conferences have vanished as we only congregate in smaller, safer groups. For many volunteer firefighters, this has eliminated many networking opportunities.
Firefighters rely on their network of peers as a source of support, not only for training but also to better our fire departments in the sharing and comparing of ideas. The comradery also fosters peer support and positive mental health. It’s also important to realize that most new ideas that positively change our operations often come from outside influences.
We are so fortunate in many ways that the pandemic hit us at a time in history where social media and online connectivity is strong. We have been forced by an outside influence to re-invent training delivery. Imagine if we went through this challenge before Facebook, Twitter, Zoom, YouTube and the like. What challenges would be even greater for us?
My fire fighting and leadership career certainly has been enhanced thanks to my network of colleagues. I learned early that having outside mentors to learn from is vital. Those of you who know me, know I am very social and I admit I struggled with the pandemic disconnect from mentors and colleagues. I have experienced years of building relationships and networks through various means. As fire leaders rising through the ranks, we all end up gravitating to our peers. We reach out to colleagues for support as our department members slowly distance themselves socially from the boss. I’m not saying that no one likes the boss, but as the ranks rise the professional challenges become more complex and we need a viewpoint from those who walk in the same shoes. That becomes increasingly harder to find within your department. It gets lonelier at the top, especially as we are forced to exercise our leadership skills to solve challenges within our department. We typically turn to others in similar roles to gain ideas or simply vent to relieve anxiety and stress.
Thankfully, my network has been enhanced with an online cross country check on Saturday evenings. Since March, our ad-hoc group of conference colleagues has met virtually every week. Now, months later, I look back and see the network has been an immeasurable help in coping. Co-columnist Tom Desorcy and I are together on this online check-in as are fire chiefs and fire service connections nationwide. It’s a sort of “Volunteer Vision online” as we have affectionately called “Team Red”. This informal group has assisted in keeping my head straight as we navigate the challenges of the pandemic. The national perspective has been very helpful.
The pandemic is a good example of this. There is no playbook but we’ve evolved with the ideas and support of neighboring departments and network of colleagues. I have reached out to my colleagues for advice and vise-versa. A well connected network can save us much grief; it has been a known fact for years. Why reinvent the wheel they say.
Someday you will sit around the table and say: “Remember 2020? I was a firefighter during the pandemic, boy the game was different then.” You are shaping how those story lines go this very day, let’s do it together. Build your department and career; build strong networks with your peers.
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 email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince.